49 Engaging in a Process of Discovery | Margaret Bloch Qazi

I don’t think I truly understood what the liberal arts perspective was until my junior year of college. While I took a variety of classes because I enjoyed learning, there was no intentional connection among them. When I started an independent research project in my Ecology class while studying Descartes in my Modern Philosophy class I had an intellectual epiphany: Descartes’ reductionist philosophy clarified why the hypothetico-deductive method I used in my biology classes was so powerful. From that point on I was hooked. I encourage interdisciplinary approaches in my classes by inviting students to share other perspectives on topics that we discuss and I point out how animals we study can be appreciated from other perspectives. I share relevant poetry and passages from literature with my classes, describe animal roles in mythology, and images in art. I encourage my advisees to ‘scaffold’ their classes to approach themes such as the environment, particular diseases (i.e. malaria), and the way(s) that female animals influence reproductive decisions in a multidisciplinary way. I enjoyed writing an essay for the Hillstrom Museum of Art’s exhibit on moths called “Night Visions: The Secret Design of Moths”. I think the world is richer and much more interesting through an integrative perspective. I learn from my colleagues in other departments, share it with my students, and encourage it from my advisees.

Science is a powerful discipline. We have learned a great deal about the physical living world and this understanding gives us an ability to manipulate processes to direct their outcomes. This raises the critical question, “Just because we can do something (i.e. clone humans or genetically modify organisms) should we do it?” The importance of exploring values with class content is supported by the work of several scholars. I have heard Drs. A. and H. Astin report the results of longitudinal studies describing student perceptions of the role of spirituality (and related concepts such as compassion, justice, and faith) in their own education[1], and Dr. J. Norden talk about her efforts to integrate “humanity” into classes at Vanderbilt University’s medical school.[2] Evidence suggests that students desire opportunities to talk about values and meaning. Two specific examples of how I explore this in my classes are provided to illustrate my point. To explore ethical, economic and environmental impacts of transgenic farming students in Organismal Biology read “Desire: Control/Plant: The Potato” from Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire. In class, students form community groups in which each individual is a different character. Characters represent different parts of the population and are described such that there was no clear-cut ‘good’ or ‘bad’ character.[3] Students shared their perspectives with each other and some communities devised novel solutions to address the economic, environmental and philosophical challenges posed by different farming practices. This required a type of creative, critical analysis of the problem and models what they will need to do as members of a college and other communities. In my upper level Developmental Biology class, we have a number of ethics discussions in which we explore topics such as when life begins (and the consequences of deciding when it begins), when is it appropriate to use stem cells, and the ethics of therapies to extend life spans. These are intended to encourage students to articulate different perspectives and the circumstances contributing to particular perspectives. In general, students seem to appreciate the chance to talk about these ideas. I have been extremely impressed with the thought, poise and respect students demonstrate when exploring these topics as well as their willingness to “play with” or “try out” different ideas and perspectives. I think these conversations are essential for preparing students to respectfully consider a variety of perspectives and to fulfill Gustavus Adolphus’ goal of preparing students for “fulfilling lives of leadership and service in society.”

I am committed to the college’s goal of encouraging and supporting a diverse community. This stems from my conviction that diversity is the fodder for creativity – different perspectives enrich our understanding of topics and challenge us to see the world in a more nuanced way. There are many categories by which one can define diversity. In addition to the idea of supporting the sharing and consideration of diverse perspectives on ethical issues related to biological topics described above, I am engaged in supporting religious and racial diversity on campus. I participate in several Diversity Center initiatives such as mentoring first-year students of color and events related to Asian and Muslim culture such as Amid Safi’s lectures, Ramadan, and Diwali. I continue to learn about the special issues facing students of color in order to improve my ability to support my students and advisees. Finally, I encourage my advisees to travel abroad. I think these experiences help students appreciate different cultures and perspectives. I also think it is very useful for students to learn how the United States ‘looks’ from the outside and how our country’s actions (or lack thereof) impact those of other nations. Students return to this learning community able to share new and diverse information/experiences.

In summary, a liberal arts education engages students in a process of discovery with the goal of preparing individuals to be citizens of the world able to seek truth with compassion. To support our institution’s mission, I am constantly working to provide effective, engaging and challenging educational opportunities for my students and advisees, to continue my scholarship into mechanisms of female sperm storage, and to be an active member of the college community through service outside of the classroom.

[1] Astin A and Astin H. February 24, 2007. “Assessing and Nurturing the Spiritual Life of College Students and Faculty”. At: Uncovering the Heart of Higher Education; integrative Learning for Compassionate Action in an Interconnected World. Co-sponsored by the Fetzer Institute and the California Institute of Integrative Studies San Francisco, CA.

[2] Norden J. November 17, 2007. “Motivating students to develop on intellectual and personal levels”. At: Promoting Deep Learning: Cultivating Intellectual Curiosity, Creativity, and Engagement in College. Sponsored by The Collaboration. Minneapolis, MN.

[3] For example, one character was described as: “You are a molecular biologist working for the Monsanto Corporation. Your job includes developing transgenic plants that are resistant to herbivorous insects, fungi and nematodes (round worms). To do this, you examine how these parasites develop and behave as well as various methods (such as Bt and plant-based defenses) to control them. After creating the transgenic plants, you record their rate of growths and yields. You grew up on a farm and understand how difficult the profession can be. After seeing farms fail, you decided to have a career that would allow you to help farmers. You see technology such as genetically modified crops as offering solutions that result in increased yields and productivity by decreasing losses to pests and disease.”