Category Archives: Teaching-Learning-Thinking

Why Critical Thinking, Communication, and the Liberal Arts are Really Important

The benefits of crowdfunding science

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

Mughr el-Hamamah 2010 002

My collaborators Liv Nilsson Stutz, Chantel White, and I have recently surpassed our crowdfunding goal on experiment.com for the project “How Did Paleolithic Hunter-Gatherers Use Plant Resources in Eurasia?”. We are so grateful to our project backers, who will be receiving exclusive updates and reports while we prepare, carry out, and wind down our fieldwork at the Mughr el-Hamamah site, Jordan, this summer. With 6 days to go in our crowdfunding campaign, we do ask that you consider becoming a backer at any level (thanks to those of you who have given us $1 or $2 dollars!). We want to increase the size of the crowd and encourage broader funding of projects on experiment.com and similar crowdfunding platforms. Crowdfunding is not a replacement for traditional public and private grant sources, but it is a great source of matching funds. Crowdfunding is interactive and encourages more transparent, open-access science that can be shared in real-time with interested non-specialists.

We just posted the following thank you Lab Note on our crowdfunding site, highlighting the benefits of investment in open science, both in general and for our project in particular:

Thanks to all of our generous backers, from family and friends to complete strangers, for helping us get to our funding goal. We’ve now surpassed $7300, with 6 days to go in our crowdfunding campaign. Your contributions will help in all of the following ways:

  • Hybrid funding sources:¬†You are helping the dollars granted by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research to go farther, in helping us carry out our inquiry into our shared hunter-gatherer past.
  • Support the culture heritage management work of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.
  • Create educational and training opportunities for our undergraduate volunteers and graduate assistants.
  • Strengthen the connections among the wider network of collaborations that go beyond this particular funding campaign — as we raised our funds, Prof. Rosa Albert of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies obtained funding to visit our excavation in late July to sample the Mughr el-Hamamah archaeological layers for plant phytoliths (microscopic silica crystals that plant cells generate, leaving us with another kind of forensic trace of plant remains). In addition, Dr. Dustin White has received funding from the Leverhulme Trust to visit us in the field, too. He will sample additional bits of sediment to look for volcanic ash grains (tephra) that may have blown into the cave 45-39,000 years ago. His work will help us to connect our reconstruction of the local environment around Mughr el-Hamamah with the wider environmental context of the Mediterranean Basin at this juncture in our shared prehistory.
  • Support the field research infrastructure maintained by the Yarmouk University Faculty of Anthropology and Archaeology. Their research station in the Jordan Valley will provide us with the field lab facilities to make our work proceed as efficiently as possible!
  • Spread the word about experiment.com, crowdfunded science, and the benefits of such funding for encouraging transparent, interactive research processes/sharing of results.

We do have 6 days remaining in our crowdfunding campaign. We’d love for the crowd of backers to grow. Please consider sharing and encouraging interested friends and family to back our project–or any other seeking funding on experiment.com. The $1 and $2 contributions help and get all of the backers-only updates we’ll be sharing with you as the project proceeds through early August. After that, your investments will have yielded a record of the research process–from planned milestones and reports, to updates about unexpected, exciting discoveries–that researchers, students, and the wider public will be able to access openly.

Thank you all for your support.

very best,

Aaron, Chantel, and Liv

Again, you can go to http://experiment.com/paleoplants and back our project, until the end of the day on Friday April 14. By surpassing our funding goal, we can expedite laboratory analyses of some of the artifacts and sediments already sampled and curated from our first excavations in 2010. You would also help us to support directly an additional graduate field assistant, making our work more effective during our limited field season in late June and July of this year. Remember that archaeological research dollars go a long way in documenting, investigating, and conserving cultural and environmental heritage that we can all access, learn from, and discuss, bringing us all closer together.

 

Are We in Equilibrium with Our Niche? Are We in Equilibrium with the Wider Ecosystem?

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

At the end of a long semester, my wonderful students in the course Anthropology 200Q: Foundations of Behavior tackled a pretty broad but important set of questions:

1) Are human beings today in equilibrium with our niche?

2) Are human beings–and the niche we occupy–in equilibrium with the wider ecosystem?

Castle in the Air. M.C. Escher (1928).

We’ll have to wait for another question that these inevitably beg: what is the human niche, anyway, even if you can define it?

So, hang on a moment.

These questions about equilibrium were important for my beginning undergraduate students to tackle. This is in part because it is important to develop awareness of how–and therefore, why–we’re integrally part of a globally intertwined biosphere. The resilience of the entire biosphere now depends in no small part on the actions that humans take. But even more basically, with these two questions, there are no foregone conclusions. Sure, it’s clear that something’s out of wack with our relationship to the wider planetary system of which we’re part. Yet, it’s not clear exactly when, how, or why the human-environment relationship has gotten out of wack. Nor is it clear what we can do about it. Thus, what I can tell my students is this. There’s substantial evidence pointing toward a wrong answer that many climate-science-deniers cling to. We’re not in the middle of a natural climatic fluctuation, like the so-called Little Ice Age that lasted from the 14th to the 19th Centuries. But I can’t even begin to tell my students what the right answer is, because interdisciplinary scientific inquiry into sustainability and complex-system resilience is still very much maturing.

Thus, my students (I had 53 in my two sections of the Anthro 200Q course, which is the first core course in Emory’s popular Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology major) are partners in evaluating ideas and information, in order to develop hypotheses–that is, hypotheses that are consistent with available evidence but that can then guide new experiments, field data collection, and analyses. Continue reading Are We in Equilibrium with Our Niche? Are We in Equilibrium with the Wider Ecosystem?

What Makes a Niche in Nature? And Where Does it End Up?

Or: How to Learn from your Undergraduate Students

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

Let’s start with learning from the learners. In all of my courses, I attempt to challenge my early undergraduate (Freshman and Sophomore) students to clarify and make connections among concepts that my scientific colleagues and I don’t entirely agree on. Or even pay attention to.

I look at it this way. As many of my faculty colleagues in diverse institutions would vouch for, it is basically impossible for any one of us scientists to steer general academic conversations–within any given discipline or specialization–toward concept-focused issues of what we don’t understand, have failed to define, or have thoroughly muddled. This is partly because, as Thomas Kuhn (1996 [1962]) famously discussed, scientific research communities tend toward what are tacitly accepted as normal paradigms. No matter how compelling a lone dissenter’s argument may be, it’s unlikely that a broader research community will immediately see a shared interest in un-learning, re-learning, and creatively reorganizing and redefining key concepts, observation and analysis methods, questions, and all of the jargon and time spent reading and debating that goes with it.

In any case, for several years now, I have confronted my students in an Emory University 200-level core course in the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology major with a major problem in studying the evolutionary foundations of human behavior:

  • what is the human niche … and where is it?

Continue reading What Makes a Niche in Nature? And Where Does it End Up?

Fast and Slow, Near and Far, In Between

Et in Arcadia Ego (1618-22) by Guercino

I’d certainly like life to be simpler. To have fewer, less disparate goals. More modest aspirations. I’d prefer not to feel the often-straining, draining pressure of too many competing obligations and expectations.

But at the same time … I can’t, don’t want to give up those goals and hopes, abandon vital personal and professional responsibilities.

For me, at least, a fulfilling life is not a simple life. I sometimes tell myself that if I had to do it all over again, I’d make choices that would increase the likelihood I’d be able to simplify things … Yet, I know deep down that I’d probably make the same choices, entailing the same struggles to complete my PhD dissertation, find a permanent academic job, get grant money, balance work and family.

The issue may generally boil down to living life, while learning how to be aware of living life. Which intrinsically entails being able to live life–with all of the conflicting, inevitably imperfect choices we have to make–while also making time and space to reflect over life and death. And … while learning how to represent, remember, and constructively communicate about said reflection. I have this much in common with artists from a much more ancient tradition. Continue reading Fast and Slow, Near and Far, In Between

Culture and the Democratic Form of Government

How does the process of culture influence democratic participation and social fairness?

Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull (1819), oil on canvas. Much of the early public discourse aimed at mobilizing political support for independence and particular aspects of constitutional organization of legislative representation and executive and judicial power was philosophical and legal in form, emphasizing logical deduction from first premises.

We usually take it for granted that concepts of democracy and justice are so overarching–so encompassing over the structure and maintenance of social order–that they have an independent, fixed, objective definition. This is certainly a practical narrative. As long as things are OK for most citizens of those societies institutionally defined and overtly committed to democracy and rule of law, the notion that our access to legislative, executive, and judicial decision-making is fundamentally fair … well, it’s quite convenient to confuse fundamental political fairness with the experience of not being treated unreasonably unfairly in daily life.

In other words, notions of social fairness and justice have a tendency to take an unmarked symbolic form in relation to the markedness of unfairness and injustice. The succinct, iconic narrative that the system is basically–or at least sufficiently–fair … this is easy for us to tell ourselves, easy to think. It diverts our attention from pervasive instances in which local, regional, or national governing institutions–with claims to sovereign powers over their jurisdictions–actually abuse their power and unfairly harm civilian individuals or groups. It diverts our attention from the ways in which governing institutions unfairly ignore or flaunt legal protections and democratic accountability.

Continue reading Culture and the Democratic Form of Government