pushpins

There are moments in memory where, when looking back, you see these little pushpins of moments that changed life. Sometimes they’re good moments, and sometimes they’re bad. One of the first of these pushpins in my academic life was a class I took my first quarter at the University of Washington, called Buffy as Archtype: Rethinking Human Nature in the Buffyverse.

I hadn’t wanted to take the class, truth be told. Buffy? Oh, please. (Yes, hold your laughter.) I had no interest in Buffy. Friends who were huge fans had tried to make me watch the show for years at that point, and I humoured them, and would be shown this or that favourite episode, and I would roll my eyes and continue to pass on the whole thing. Because of course, the problem with showing someone your favourite episode is their utter lack of context for why it’s your favourite; to me, it was people I didn’t know behaving senselessly. I had no background, and I really didn’t care.

But the academic adviser for CHID would not be deterred. I needed another class, and she needed a body – especially a body that did know her mythology and her Joseph Campbell. Besides, it was a CHID class, and would let me meet my fellow department-mates, and get to know people. It was sound argument, and I acquiesced. This was probably one of the two best decisions I ever made at UW.

The Buffy class did several things for me. First and most obviously, it introduced me to Buffy and the wider Whedonverse. I used Netflix to rent the series from the beginning, because if there’s one thing I hate, it’s not knowing – and watching just an episode here and there for class wasn’t doing it for me. I had to know the characters, I had to know the back story, I had to know the why’s. And what I discovered was a story of a female hero, friendship, strength, and even the value of weakness and the virtue of relying on your friends – all things I needed just then, as I was going through my divorce. Buffy kept me company at night, after work and schoolwork, and it helped me reshape my world to one where I could be that strong, too.

But the class had another major influence on me: it showed me that critical academic theory in a pop culture framework was possible. I don’t mean those light philosophy books and whatever popular TV show at the moment sort of things, but actual critical theory, Zizek-style (if you will). Perhaps even more importantly, it showed me the power of pop culture in teaching complex theories, something that has gone on to inform the basis of my own pedagogical style. It’s not coincidence or even passing brilliance on my part, that I illustrate my own lectures and courses with clips from The Daily Show, relevant movies, newscasts, and whatever else catches my eye and is appropriate. It is a direct callback to this class, which showed me the power of pop culture to form a concrete basis to then connect more tenuous academic concepts to.

In typical CHID tradition, one of the co-facilitators of the course was another CHID student, Jennifer K. Stuller. Jen was really amazing (and kind of intimidating) from the get-go. She herself was a great model of the sort of funny, warm, brilliant, strong female academic I wanted to be, an embodiment of the strong female hero that she was so fascinated with, and that formed the basis of her CHID thesis. (I would feel tongue-tied and shy around her, although if she ever noticed this, she was kind enough to not say.) It’s also formed the basis of her first book, Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, which is available now, and something I really think everyone should buy. Moreso if you have daughters, because women need strong role models – the fictional ones Jen talks about in her book, and the ones like Jen herself.

returning to beginning

Today started out with a lot of dread. I went to campus to talk to people in my department, both professors and colleagues, and I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve been a lot more withdrawn these last six weeks than normal for me, avoiding being online, and people in general. It was going to be trial by fire, throwing myself from limited contact – my family, Michael, Laurie, Daniel – to anyone who wanted to walk up and say hello.

And then I forgot to bring sedatives. You laugh, but they were my just in case. Get overwhelmed, excuse self to get a coffee and have 15 minutes of quiet while a sedative kicked in and I had that slight anesthetic effect to let me regain control and composure.

Woops, and oh well.

Thankfully, they weren’t needed. For whatever reason, the graduate office was relatively deserted today, and I never had any overwhelming numbers of people around. In fact, it was just the opposite, and it was surprising.

That it was surprising might, well, surprise people. I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about what a perfect storm of things to make you uncertain about grad school this last 18 months, give or take, has been. Or at least laid it out in whole. As the chair for the graduate program has told me a few times now, any single one of these is difficult and concerning for a student to go through; going through them all and coming out still able to laugh (as MzS~ said earlier tonight, go through explosion after explosion and come out virtually unscathed) is rare.

Starting at the beginning, moving from one coast to the other is a culture shock. I’ve talked with several professors about this now, and they all agree – most have done the move themselves. As the chair said to me today, when he made that move from West to East, he started his first semester of graduate school elated, and ended it feeling like he’d been kicked. It’s hard to move away from everything you know and start over, especially when you know no one and aren’t in that same boat with the rest of your classmates, living in dorms, and forced to get to know people. It’s hard, and it’s lonely, and you’re a broke grad student and it’s hard to go out to dinner or bars or just places where you’ll meet folks. It can be demoralizing, too – I’m not sure how widespread this particular story is, but from June 2006 until January 2007 – from leaving Seattle until I returned for a short visit – the only people who’d hugged me were family, which was rare in itself.

That, from an environment where, if you walked into the CHID office, you were almost always immediately asked if you’d had your three hugs today. And if not, they would make sure you got them. An environment where I was literally in physical contact with many people, every day – casual, comfortable, friendly, caring contact. To nothing. I nearly cried when the first person I saw, back in Seattle, didn’t even stop to say hello before folding me into a huge hug. And to have that happen again, and again, made me realize just what I was missing.

That would be hard enough. But in that time, the program I was in fell apart, and by everyone’s admission, I got caught in the middle as the student most directly impacted, and it wasn’t handled well on anyone’s part (myself included). I went from this custom, unique program to nothing in the span of something like 6 weeks, and that nothing included realizing just what an odd person out I am in the department I remain in.

Then Mom was diagnosed with cancer, and we knew from the beginning it was likely to be terminal. Going into Christmas trying to simultaneously be positive, but watch Mom go through the side effects of chemo, and everyone silently trying to cope with it being our last family Christmas was more than grueling. It was a nightmare I wouldn’t wish on anyone, as were the subsequent months. And I was forced to deal with a lot of issues around my family that, well, we all probably have to some degree. I had to confront my problems with my family, and deal with them, and work through them – an on-going issue, I admit (and an admission just for you, sis). I had to continue confronting this over the next 11 months, and probably for for a while longer. I’m still angry, I’m still hurt, and I’m still grieving.

Are you tired yet? I think that in itself is enough, don’t you? Too bad it doesn’t stop there. There’s been a pervasive problem with sexism in my department, or at least what appeared to be rampant discrimination. Not from the professors, who I might have expected it from, but the other graduate students. Talking over and around the women, making jokes about not being able to make off-coloured jokes, blatantly discussing parties we hadn’t been invited to in front of us – bad enough, but it escalated to the point that it seemed like direct attacks were being made against the women in classes, and things just exploded into a department mess from there.

And speaking of the department, about this time it also became very clear – in that they told me to my face – that several professors really didn’t like bioethics. They didn’t see the point to it, they didn’t understand why anyone would go in to such a worthless career, that all bioethicists do is sit around and kvetch. And this wasn’t a one-off, it was said to me, directly, repeatedly, up until the week before I left for ASBH. Where MzS~ and I would have to subtly and physically taking turns restraining one another when things were said, because hi, we were standing right there.

So to recap,

  1. moving and culture shock
  2. academic program falling apart and going away, messily
  3. Mom’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death
  4. sexism and alienation in my department
  5. definite anti-bioethics bias revealed by faculty, leaving me feel unwelcome in the department

As if that weren’t enough, there have been numerous work issues, which I won’t go into for reasons involving discretion (and contractual shut-up agreements). But to say those haven’t helped is an understatement.

Just typing it out is exhausting. Going through it has been… a perfect storm. Leaving me wondering what the hell I’m doing, am I even in the right place, what am I doing in a department that doesn’t want me on multiple fronts, a city I still feel like a stranger in…

Is it any wonder I was dreading going back onto campus, when I’ve felt successively alienated?

Academically, the program dissolution issue has been solved for a while. It’s an expensive solution that’s going to take more time, but it’s still do-able. So that’s off the table, it’s just the lingering stress and loneliness of solitude in interests that’s there.

Obviously, and both fortunately and unfortunately, my mother’s illness is over. I’m going to have to cope with the after-effects of that for a long time, but I’m not alone in the Dead Mommy Club.

I haven’t been around for a lot of the cleanup on the sexism front, but I hear that, like all good stories, instead of it being what we (the women) saw, it was something else. Some cluelessness, some insensitivity, and other people’s problems spilling over and looking like something they weren’t – sexism. It’s sort of funny to say that, in light of the post I made regarding it almost a year ago – because gender was the problem. The fact that there were (and still are) so few women in the program made it seem like it was a sexism problem, when in reality it was just a people problem.

And one of the professors who said such negative things about bioethics actually paid me a compliment today, telling me it wasn’t something he could do, and he knew it was a difficult field – just dealing with the doctors made it hard. We talked about what I wanted to do my dissertation on, and he actually not only gave me advice, but told me he thought it was a genuinely good idea.

That was actually my first meeting today. And the day just got better. I ended up talking to several colleagues who had made me feel so isolated and alienated last year, and they were, across the board, sweet and empathetic and kind. I had a long conversation with one of the primary people who made me feel unwelcome and sort of worthless due to my non-philosophy background, where he got enthusiastic about my research interests, and disturbed over my concerns about the program. Someone else, who has been so consistently considerate, kind, and quietly stable this last year spent almost an hour catching me up on the department issues and talking, again, about the future. MzS~ and I went to dinner, where it was like I had never been gone – we spent several hours laughing, talking over one another, spinning wildly from topic to topic, in one breathe going from giggly girls to serious academics and back again.

I went into the day dreading it, and nine hours after I left my house, I came home feeling like, for the first time in I don’t know how long, that I didn’t make the wrong choice in coming here. I came home smiling, having been hugged, and most of all, having hope…and finally feeling like maybe, just maybe I’m home.

Academic Homesickness

I’ve set aside the papers I was grading, and am watching the coffee shop again. Watching people read their papers, seeing their screens flash by various news sites. I can’t help but think of another of Latour’s comments about modern man. He says that if reading the daily paper is modern man’s form of prayer, then it is a very strange prayer indeed, with culture and news and nature being churned and tossed up over again on a daily basis. It’s an amusing analogy, but perhaps more apt than he even realized; prayer, ultimately, is a gesture of hope, of faith in something greater than yourself. What better thing to pray in and to, than that which you directly influence? And in the field of interdisciplinary studies, what you directly influence is up to you, limited only by your own ideas.
- me, CHID 390 final paper, written much later than most, and thus with much more perspective

the gifts of teaching

I am asked one of two questions quite frequently. Those who come over ask about the art on my walls. Those who create the art, ask if I really hang it up. So, here are some examples of the art in my house – these are all student projects, bits and pieces that I fell in love with, and my students were kind enough to give to me at the end of our classes together.

So, the short answers are: the art in my house primarily consists of things my students have done as part of their academic work, and yes, I do actually display the art, with significant pride.


This door and wall show art from several different students and classes. The pieces on the left are from a class called Eye and Mind, centering on Merleau-Ponty, and bringing freshmen humanities students into a lab to see that science doesn’t have to be a scary Other. This particular student fixed and stained osteoblasts multiple colours, figured out how to photograph them via the microscope, then created a series of images from world religions in “stained glass” – transparency paper and the photoshopped images.

The pictures on the right are from a technology/communication course, and deal with how we see and how we read the body.


The petri dish in the upper left corner is also from the Eye and Mind course. My student figured out how to dye and fix his osteoblasts that shade of green, and then, using a dental implement, traced, in multiple petri dishes, the life cycle of several pacific northwest trees. He also wrote a corresponding paper on emergence, and tied the two together. You can see a closeup of the petri dish here; it was my favourite of the etchings.

The flower and the dry erase marker were gifts my mentor gave to me at the conclusion of our first class teaching together. A single white rose, and a dry erase marker in purple. The purple was a very sentimental touch; following the advice of a friend’s mother, I had taken to grading my papers in purple (so that the papers didn’t appear to drip blood). My teaching cohort graded in brown ink, and was given a brown dry erase marker. I was extremely moved by the level of attention and detail my mentor showed in selecting such a thoughtful gift… and I have it, and the rose, on the wall as memorial to everything that class was for me; it, more than anything, is why I now am here, where I am – thanks to that mentor, and those amazing students.

God in the Gene (or, The God Problem)

Originally written in Spring of 2005 for a class on biotechnological communication.

God1 has a problem. Specifically, s/he2 has suffered a reductionist downsizing of massive proportions, going from an omniscient, everywhere being to a genetic predisposition, a singular regulatory gene. In the reductionist, geneticized view of God commonly referred to as “the God Gene”, after a book of the same name, God occurs in a particular gene, VMAT2, and is an expression of monoamines designed to make us feel better about life, stress, and death. The singular gene theory is also a fallacy that not even the author of the problematic title, Dean Hamer, subscribes to. And if it is such a fallacy that not even the author believes it, then why was it published? What point is it trying to prove, or serve?

In The God Gene, Hamer builds on the work of several scientists who have been studying spirituality, religion and the brain, including (and leaning heavily on) Michael Persinger, who studies the construction of the temporal lobe and how its construction affects one’s God experience. Hamer takes the idea of God in the brain a step further, looking for and finding a single gene he believes controls how spiritual we are. This, the aforementioned VMAT2 gene, and is involved in how the brain uses monoamines, a class of neurotransmitters including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. In simple terms, VMAT2 makes a protein that packages all of the different monoamines into secretory vehicles – the biological packages that the brain uses to store its signal molecules.3 Hamer and his team focused on finding a gene that would control both dopamine and serotonin functionality in the brain. Dopamine has been associated with a sense of self-transcendence and good will, while serotonin is well known to affect emotions, particularly negative ones such as depression an anxiety. He found this combination in VMAT2.

An obvious and immediate problem with the concept of a God gene is just that, and was pointed out by one of Hamer’s colleagues: “Do you mean there’s just one?” Hamer says that what he meant to say was “‘a’ God gene, not “the God gene ” ” [emphasis mine] and that “it wouldn’t make sense that a single gene was responsible for such a complex trait. …most of the inherited effects can’t be explained by VMAT2. There might be another 50 genes or more of similar strength.”4.” Fair enough, and if we had been overhearing his conversation with said colleague, it would be understandable that we went away with the impression of a God gene. But that’s not the case; Hamer had plenty of time to refine his book title, and chose to stay with the phrase that immediately raised the eyes of colleagues and demanded clarification. Why? It’s a question only Hamer can answer, but we can certainly speculate on it.

This isn’t the first time Hamer has promoted the theory of a single gene determining behaviour. Hamer is probably best known for his “gay gene” theory, brought to light by gay rights activists attempting to utilize the language of the Supreme Court to sway lower courts in a Colorado case on homosexuality and discrimination. Hamer and colleagues had published two reports that supposedly supported the existence of a “gay gene”, but the first and more substantive report was plagued with problems and the second report showed a much smaller percentage of men with the correct marker for the gene.5In 1993, when Hamer first declared the find of the gay gene, he very clearly stated that gay genes existed; several years later he backpedaled to say that “there is no ‘gay gene’ and I’ve never thought there was.”6 Obviously well aware of the controversy, he goes on to make the same “mistake” with The God Gene – mistake, or publicity?

While he repeats the “mistake” he made with the “gay gene,” Hamer did learn from the controversy, and with his “God gene” is being very careful to say “the term “God gene” is, in fact, a gross oversimplification of the theory. There are probably many different genes involved, rather than just one.”7 Hamer is also very careful to say that the God component of the gene is not a specific God, but is in fact a spiritual instinct that is hardwired into our brains, and that spirituality has a biological mechanism that is expressed in response to and shaped by our environment. Spirituality, then, is genetic, while God is cultural and mimetic.8 In this, Hamer harks back to Persinger, who constructed very specific phrases to talk about God Beliefs. Persinger divided God Beliefs into two categories, God Experiences and God Concepts. God Experiences are transient, emotionally loaded phenomenon associated with the temporal lobe of the brain, while God Concepts are cultural, verbal and pictorial conditionings. Taken together, your God Experience and God Concepts create your God Beliefs – whether or not you believe in God, how you define God, whether or not you see God as a melding with the Universal All (a very Eastern concept), or a more fatherly and/or strict authoritarian figure (as in Western mythology).9 It is also important to note that while Persinger was looking for God Experiences, he was not trying to reduce the question of God down to a single gene. Instead, Persinger was exploring a more emergent conception of God; that is, that God is a sum of parts. Persinger believed that “the God Experience is a normal and more organized pattern of temporal lobe activity.”10

It’s important to note the difference here. Persinger is trying to describe where and why God (or similar transcendent and universal experiences) exist, not how. Persinger is looking at electrical activity and fields as a means for God; God is in the electrical impulse. Persinger finds God in temporal lobe transients, which are electrical perturbations of the temporal lobe.

When they occur, the innate feelings of the God Experience are displayed. Depending on the extent of the activity, some experiences would be mild cosmic highs… Other more intense transients would evoke the peak experiences of life… They would involve religious conversations, rededications, and personal communions with God.11

The beauty of Persinger’s work is that it is not a reductionist approach; he is studying the why, where, and what: why do God Experiences happen, where do they occur, and what are they? Persinger deals completely in the emergent properties of electrical patterns, you can’t break it down into component parts. It would be like trying to take the flour out of a cookie once it’s been baked. In contrast to this, Hamer takes a reductionist approach in trying to find how the God Experience happens. For Hamer, all things must break down into their component parts, and then build back up. You take the Lego pieces out of the box, build the castle, take the castle apart, build the castle, take the castle apart, ad nauseum. As self-described materialist12, (as are most scientists13), Hamer’s reductive viewpoint makes sense – that doesn’t make it right.

Hamer argues for a geneticized basis for God, going further than Persinger’s electrical God to say that God is in the Gene. As noted, contrary to both popular opinion and Hamer’s book title The God Gene, Hamer does not argue for a single determining gene that defines God, just that the potential for God is within us, and that our ability to perceive God is based on what genetic combination we have. Those who are more devout simply are more genetically inclined to be. It is a geneticization or biodeterminist belief; not only do our genes determine if we believe, they determine that all there is to believe is cultural constructs that were developed to house our internal God Experiences. These experiences are similar to one another solely because we all have temporal lobes14, which all feel the same things during temporal lobe transients; it’s how we interpret the temporal lobe transients that varies. Spirituality, then, is what’s in the genes, and God is in our cultural constructs.

By acknowledging cultural constructs, Hamer appears be creating a role for environment, thus mitigating the nature/nurture controversy. As is popular with scientists, he uses twin models in an attempt to show neutrality by saying that they were raised in different environments and still have statistical correlation. The problem lies in Hamer’s definition of environment; he says “these twins were raised by different parents, in different neighborhoods, and sometimes even in different religions,” so “their similarities seemed to be the result of their DNA rather than their environment.” There are two immediate problems with this: first, the twins still shared the same in utero environment for nine very developmentally important months. Secondly, none of the twins Hamer uses to validate his point were raised outside the same environment of western Judeo-Christian culture. While income levels undoubtedly have an impact on a person’s beliefs, there is a core, shared national environment that should not be discounted for convenience.

Hamer’s first geneticized social issue was homosexuality, which he reduced down to a “gay gene” to argue for tolerance, equality and rights. Although he did backpedal on the singular nature of the gene, he repeats the assertion in his next social issue, religion and God – there is a singular God gene. Perhaps instead of looking at his reductive biological determinism, we should be paying attention to the issues Hamer chooses to focus on. Religion is undoubtedly one of the most debated and contested issues in our society right now. Many people consider it to be the cause of our current engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the cause of the World Trade Center attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin attacks in Tokyo, and so on. The list of things attributed, both negatively and (to a lesser degree) positively, to religion in the last ten years alone is awing. Over the course of history, religion has been responsible for more deaths, wars, and pogroms than all the governments combined. If we could explain religion, find its cause, could we neutralize it? Control it?

There is a common ecumenical belief that all paths lead to the same end point. That is, all religious beliefs and paths are merely different cultural interpretations of a single, unifying something. This ecumenical belief points out the similarities between all religions: the focus on family, love, respect, honour, peace, treating others well. Commandments like “kill the unbelievers” are swept away as cultural constructs that should be taken in stride with social conditions of the time15 On the surface you could argue that by focusing on the universality of a spiritual experience and relegating the interpretation of that experience to memes, Hamer et. all are trying negate what Persinger calls the religious encouragement that the believer is more special and unique than others, that “the believers of the Koran feel that it is just a little more valid than the Bible, and the believers of the Bible feel it is a little more valid than the Koran.”16 This is well and noble, but you have to wonder if there isn’t a more secular interest in God?

Science and religion have been at odds with one another since science escaped its “handmaiden of religion” role during the Enlightenment.17 Instead of existing to validate religious beliefs, science began to contradict and question those beliefs. Since that time, science and religion have been relegated to opposing spheres that continually battle for the beliefs of the population. Could it be, then, that instead of a well-intended attempt to bridge the divides of religion by showing the similarity and origin of spiritual beliefs, Hamer is attempting to go further than reducing God to a gene? By saying that spirituality is what we feel, and that our beliefs about God, Allah, the Universal Whole, are merely cultural, and that there is no outside authority, is Hamer trying to actually negate God completely? After all, it would be quite the coup for science to finally be able to say, with all authority, that God is well and truly dead.

  1. Persinger, Michael. 1987. “It may be called Allah, God, Cosmic Consciousness, or even some idiosyncratic label. Slightly deviant forms include references to intellectual abstracts such as ‘mathematical balance,’ ‘consciousness of time,’ or ‘extraterrestrial intrusions.’” In Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (New York: Praeger), pp. 1-2 []
  2. For the purpose of this essay, the spiritual Being referred to by Persinger, Hamer, etc will be referred to as God, for simplicity, and s/he to respect as many beliefs as possible. []
  3. Hamer, Dean. 2004. Hamer spends several chapters describing the role of VMAT2 on serotonin, dopamine, and how that combination would create perceptions of Persinger’s universal God-feeling. In The God Gene (New York: Doubleday), pp 56-69. []
  4. _________ pp 77. []
  5. Bereano, Phillip. 1996. “The Mystique of the Phantom Gay Gene.” Seattle Times Op Ed, February 25, 1996. []
  6. _________ []
  7. Hamer, Dean. 2004. In The God Gene (New York: Doubleday), pp 8. []
  8. Memes are ideas that can replicate and evolve. Richard Dawkins, who coined the term, specifically chose a phrase that sounded like gene, as he was trying to evoke that biological imagery. He has also been known to refer to memes, especially religion, as a virus; this, sadly, is not the place to discuss the fallacy of memes. []
  9. Persinger, Michael. 1987. In Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (New York: Praeger), pp. 1-8 []
  10. _________ pp. 19 []
  11. _________ pp. 16 []
  12. A philosophical view which says that all things that exist can be broken down into their fundamental, material components. []
  13. _________ “Most scientists, including myself, are materialists.” pp. 94 []
  14. Similar to how we all have a shared experience in pain; we know what it feels like when someone else stubs their toe. []
  15. Armstrong, Karen. 2000. The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. (New York: Ballentine). []
  16. Persinger, Michael. 1987. In Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (New York: Praeger), pp. 4 []
  17. Woiak, Joanne. Lecture, February 2004. []