NWSA Journal 16.1 (2004) 221-233
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Give This Book to a Chemistry Professor?
Catherine Hurt Middlecamp
Should you offer one of these books to a colleague in chemistry? Or perhaps to one in geology, physics, or mathematics? As a chemist, I keep hoping to find The Perfect Book to hand to those who teach large, introductory chemistry courses. The Perfect Book would contain the perfect blend of answers and thought-provoking questions, all aimed at changing how science is taught and learned. Of course such a book has not been written. And I realize that no book could be written that would motivate its readers to carry out all the transformations of introductory physical science1 courses that I have in mind. But I still find myself longing for a book that would make such strong connections between feminist science studies and the content and pedagogy of our large introductory courses that instructors could not resist the urge to explore new ways of teaching and learning.
Dream on? In a limited sense, yes. Introductory chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, and any of the other physical sciences, both in college and in high school, are simply too important not to be the subject of our dreams, hopes, and fears. Admittedly, there are interdisciplinary courses, usually in the life sciences and often upper-level, that connect science and issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and society. A notable example in physics (together with other disciplines) is described in Feminist Science Studies (226-46). The architect of this course, Karen Barad, relates how it was "designed to enable students to learn science while [End Page 221] thinking about science, and to learn that thinking about science is part of doing science" (240). Another example is a new course that I offered this past year (Chemistry 201: Environmental Chemistry and Ethnicity) for 25 students who had completed general chemistry. Starting with the uranium ore in the Four Corners region, students quickly delved into a complex set of chemical and cultural topics.2 But smaller and/or upper level courses are not the subject of this review article. Rather, I wish to examine these books in terms of what they offer to those of us who teach the masses, a.k.a., introductory physical science courses where students may be measured in units of hundreds. Truly, the need is great.
The Perfect Book would be more than simply a matter of feminist content. In addition, it would match its intended audience of the faculty in the physical sciences, paving around some predictable stumbling blocks. For example, the usage of specialized terms and disciplinary jargon would have to be carefully titrated to the reader. Similarly, the f-words such as feminism, feminist theory and feminist science studies would have to wait until the second chapter (at least). But more important, the Perfect Book would speak to the constraints and issuesfacing those of us who teach large introductory courses and would acknowledge the difficulties involved.3 In short, The Book would meet the readers where they were and not where we wish they would be.
But let's be honest. You can't always just feed readers what they want. For example, some busy science instructors might want The Perfect Book to be short and to the point. Make this very short—for some, a one-page handout with "the answers" would suffice. This very notion of providing answers perhaps best points...