Those who can’t, teach: critical science literacy as a queer science of failure
University of California, Davis
that feminist thought can do more than offer us resources for the
sciences, rather, we wish to demonstrate that sometimes feminist
thought *is* science.
—Banu Subramaniam and Angela Willey (2016)
We should be
asking the question, asking ourselves, about the aspiration to power
that is inherent in the claim to being a science.
—Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended (2003)
certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing,
unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more
cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.
—Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (2011)
For decades, feminist science studies (FSS)
scholars have debated the possibilities of doing feminist science
(Giordano, 2014; Longino, 1990; Roy, 2004; Spanier, 1986). One site of
interest for these conversations has the “feminist scientist,” that is,
the self-identified feminist who is trained as a scientist. Here, I
turn to this subject-figure but instead of looking for ways to keep the
feminist scientist in the traditional science laboratory, I focus on
those who have left the sciences proper and found new interdisciplinary
homes in feminist studies. I bring together Banu Subramaniam’s (2009)
rethinking of the leaky pipeline metaphor with Judith Halberstam’s
(2011) queer art of failure and Sarah Ahmed’s (2014) reading of
willfulness to rethink how those of us who “failed” at Science proper
have found ways to produce new kinds of science through our teaching in
feminist studies classrooms. I read this kind of “failure” as useful
for challenging Science’s epistemic authority while also producing new
kinds of science. I use this formulation to offer ways of doing
feminist science cognizant of critiques of its epistemic authority.
Indeed, “failure” at Science might disrupt that bind by opening up
possibilities of practicing feminist critical science literacy as doing
The CFP for this special issue proposes that feminist thought itself is
sometimes science. I argue that we must carefully analyze why we might
want to make such a claim. Simply using a lowercase s and pluralizing
“science” does not resolve its relation to the epistemic authority
established by capital S Science from its colonial foundation. That is,
I argue that the use of lower case plural “sciences” in part remains
attached to that epistemic authority. Although we may on occasion want
to exploit those benefits, if we do not critically examine our
relationship to such privilege, we risk reifying it.
In the second epigraph, Michel Foucault
argues that any theory (using Marxism as his example) trying to claim
the title of “science” must carefully analyze what kind of knowledge
and whose knowledge it is trying to delegitimize. He argues that we
must be aware of the dangers that come with attempting to benefit from
“the power-effects that the West has, ever since the Middle Ages,
ascribed to a science and reserved for those who speak a scientific
discourse” (Foucault, 2003, p. 10). Here it is important that Foucault
locates the beginning of this epistemic authority in the beginning of
Western colonization. Sylvia Wynter (2003) draws on Foucault and Anibal
Quijano’s conceptions of power to explain that the colonial and
capitalist roots and development of the sciences have produced “man,”
thoroughly embedded in a racial hierarchy, through what she calls the
“Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom.”
We can read Foucault and Wynter together to
understand that claiming inclusion in science risks strengthening and
relying on a colonial and racialized form of power that is produced by
and produces the possibilities for knowledge and life itself. These
genealogies demonstrate the co-construction of Science with the
globalization of racial hierarchy, both of which together naturalize
and justify domination through acts of genocide, slavery, and other
forms of exploitation. At the root of the justification for social
inequality then is Western science (together with philosophy and other
modern disciplines). By producing the categories of human/nonhuman as
forms of natural (yet flexible) racial difference, capitalism becomes
justified as a natural (yet flexible) economic system (Melamed, 2015).
I begin from this understanding of s/Science as always political and
implicated in these histories of exploitation. That is, the goal of
science is not the innocent goal of “understanding nature” but rather a
political project of producing “nature.” The question I raise in this
article is how to keep central the political justifications and
potential consequences of working towards feminist sciences.
In this article, I analyze our affective
relationships to science. I suggest that the ways we describe science
and our feelings about it can reinforce or destabilize the epistemic
authority usually conferred upon it. I end with a focus on critical
science literacy as one example of how “failing” at doing science
research proper may be seen as a feminist science practice that
explicitly unsticks Science from Truth and therefore opens up
possibilities to unstick Being/Power/Truth/Freedom from Coloniality. I
argue that critical science literacy can be seen as a practice in
“rewriting knowledge” (Wynter, 1984, 1994). I use literacy to mean the
ability to both read and write (produce). I use critical (as in
feminist) to signal the “re”-writing of science through the practice of
this kind of literacy. I offer this as a “failure,” as a rejection of
capital S Science, maybe even an anti-Science, a willful refusal,
perhaps the heretical turn we need to disrupt the epistemic authority
of Science (that is, the assumption that science = truth).
Affect—specifically passion, desire, and
fear—polices the bounds of proper science and the questions appropriate
to it. I suggest here that a big part of our desire to engage with
science is our desire to prove that we (women and feminists) can do it.
I explore the importance of proving that we can do science at the same
time as I examine the possibilities of embracing a can’t-do attitude toward science.
Sara Ahmed (2004) argues that emotions are
political, not simply individual psychic truths, and that emotions “do
things.” She introduces the idea of affect as “sticky” in her analysis
of how happiness is used to maintain the assumption of the family as a
social good. She argues that “affect is what sticks, or what sustains
or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects” (p.
29). Rehearsing happiness as the appropriate affective response to the
family creates a stronger attachment between the family and social good
through what she calls “affective economies.” To succeed in this
economy of happiness, then, is to be happy about the family and
participate in circulating more happiness through love of your family
and/or the idea of the family. Ahmed argues that when one is unhappy
about the family, they are seen as the problem—the source of
unhappiness for all. However, she also posits that we might analyze
unhappiness to show that the family is not necessarily a social good.
In this way, unhappiness might be able to unstick this relationship.
She labels those who disturb these attachments as “affect aliens” or
For the Love of Science: We Can Do It!
In recent years, we have seen a growth in
feminist science studies faculty positions and curricular innovations
in feminist and women’s studies departments. As a feminist studies
professor trained as a scientist, this has been good news. I noticed
something of interest in recent years as I have interviewed, worked,
attended conferences, and retrained in feminist studies. My humanities-
and social science-trained colleagues are not just impressed by my
science credentials but often explicitly interested in hearing the
“real” scientific details of my research. As I have worked in feminist
circles, I have noted that when giving talks I am assured that “we can
understand it [science]” and asked to share more graphs and data so
that my colleagues might engage with the science of my work. In some
ways this marks an exciting shift in women’s studies. Feminist
scientists have much lamented that our colleagues sometimes act as if
there is no way that they can understand science or technology
(Fausto-Sterling, 1992; Subramaniam, 2005). At the same time, I wonder
what is at stake in claiming that we can understand science and how, in
such claims, “real” science is being defined.
In an exemplary case, Anne Fausto-Sterling
(1992) concludes her notable essay “Building Two-Way Streets: The Case
for Feminism and Science” by naming her affection for science and then
saying she is not going to spend time on it. She also states that she
believes we should be talking about love and pleasure as it relates to
science. Fausto-Sterling lets us know that she takes great “pleasure
from observing the natural world” and is “distressed” (p. 347) to see
students not care about the physical world. I agree we should be
(carefully) discussing our affective relationships to science, nature,
and our physical worlds. By introducing this side note about her love
of science but not exploring it in detail, this affective claim is left
as evidence of a certain kind of unexamined truth about a natural draw
to science. As a highly influential treatise on FSS, this casual
mention of science-loving naturalizes this discourse for the field.
Drawing on Ahmed (2004), I explore here
what work “passion for science” does in feminist communities.
Enthusiasm for science is an important feature of popular
understandings of who is capable of doing science in this moment.
Therefore, showing passion towards science individually and
collectively as feminists is part of showing that we have the aptitude
to do science. But who can do science? In the latter part of the
twentieth century, we see a move away from the figure of the
dispassionate scientist to one that “could be celebrated as passionate,
motivated, socially networked, energetic, and creative—virtues of
entrepreneurialism” (Murphy, 2012, p. 71). Today, the popular image of
the scientist (inevitably white and male) has become a fun, nerdy,
brainy subject who is passionate about data, numbers, and problem
solving through science while simultaneously remaining socially
unaccountable (Willey & Subramaniam, 2017). Indeed, as I have
argued previously, the passion to do science acts as a colorblind and
gender-blind correction to discriminatory assumptions of natural
aptitude (Giordano, 2017). However, the idea of a natural
predisposition has always gone hand-in-hand with having the passion to
do science (Willey & Subramaniam, 2017). Just as feminists may
question the political utility of arguing that women are as smart as
men, instead of challenging the idea of intelligence itself, I argue
here that we as feminists may have fallen into the same trap with
passion for science. The many stories of budding feminist scientific
passions squashed by sexist teachers, parents, or the “system” are
repeatedly invoked to explain the underrepresentation of women in
science careers. Feminists must do more than show that we too have this
passion for science and instead question more deeply what this passion
is, how is it produced, how it operates, and what it means that it is
directed towards this object called science.
Feminist scientists who have moved to
feminist studies programs from the sciences can play a particular role
in telling stories about how and why we left the sciences proper. Even
those of us who succeeded to the point of receiving PhDs in the
sciences, thereby forever holding paper rights to the title
“scientist,” but who do not continue to practice science are part of
the statistics of women who leaked out of the pipeline.
Many of us begin with stories of passion
and love for science and discovery of our natural and physical worlds
(Clarke, 2001; Fausto-Sterling, 1992; Fox Keller, 1977; Weasel, 2001).
Reading narratives of feminist scientists’ complicated love affairs
with science may help us to understand more about the political meaning
of our affection. For example, Evelyn Hammonds, now a historian of
science who began her PhD training in physics, responds to Aimee Sands
in the often-taught interview published as “Never Meant to Survive: A
Black Woman’s Journey” (Hammonds & Sands, 1993) by saying that she
always liked science and wanted to do more after being exposed to doing
science on her own through a chemistry set that her father bought her
when she was a child . However, she also says that she had an interest
in doing as much science and math as possible because she knew that
would help her get into a “good college” (p. 208). Science’s deep
imbrications in networks of power make it impossible to tease out a
pure love or passion for scientific discovery outside of the desire for
access to power. Hammonds retells the story of how during what was
supposed to be a “fun” summer math program, she and the two other black
students were not having fun because they were not able to keep up due
to differences in previous education compared to the white students.
This is an example of how passion and exhibiting a desire to do science
cannot be considered separate from the ways racism, sexism, and other
systems of power differently educate and expose people to what are
considered the proper objects and backgrounds in science. Ruth Hubbard
further points out that taking pleasure in observing our “natural
world” is class- and race-based, as many people grow up without
“nature” around them (Hubbard et al., 1993).
I have argued here that feminists circulate
stories about having childhood passions for science to disrupt the idea
that the numbers of boys and girls in science reflect their natural
aptitude or interests. But a careful political analysis of our passions
also reveals the danger in relying on a naturalized idea of passion
rather than investigating the epistemic power of science. I wonder if
we risk reifying the idea that science is the best truth-telling
method. That is, do we read all desires to investigate the world around
us, our bodies, and our communities as scientific passion? Drawing on
Hubbard et al. (1993), I ask, when other options for truth-telling are
available, what choices could we make? How might we think about the
ways that we continued those passions for discovery without proper
science? How might we strategically and ethically develop our feminist
scientific passions? As I move towards offering some answers to these
questions, I suggest we explore the possibility that we can’t do science.
We Can’t do Science: Reading Ignorance, Fear and Failure as Willful Resistance
If we read our reasons for loving science
as more complicated than evidence of our innate attraction to the
field, what might fear, hatred, or mistrust of science, or even
scientific illiteracy and ignorance of scientific facts, mean? Now that
I have explored and critiqued claims that we can do science, I turn my
attention to reasons why we can’t do science. I look at ways that we
can’t in two senses: first, being unwilling to, and second, having been
stopped from pursuing our scientific dreams. I continue with my
argument from the last section about the unequal power between science
and feminism and explore what some uncommon forms of resistance to that
power imbalance might look like.
In the last section, I read the
relationship between science and passion or love for science through
Ahmed’s concept of sticky affect to argue that passion and love for
science attach science to truth. I argue that the absence of that
“proper” affective relationship to science, through hate, disinterest,
and willful refusal, may detach science from truth (similarly to how
unhappiness may unstick the family from the social good).
Fear and ignorance of science are often
cited as the primary ways in which women’s studies contributes to the
impossibility of feminist sciences. Where individuals express an
anti-science position as a political response, there is often contempt
for it. For example, in discussing the importance of a scientifically
literate feminist studies, Fausto-Sterling (1992) shares that “at the
extreme (but not particularly uncommon) are students who view a refusal
of scientific knowledge as an appropriate political stance. To say I
find such attitudes distressing is to vastly understate my feelings on
the matter” (p. 338). She continues: “I often experience my students’
refusal to explore certain aspects of human knowledge as a willful
anti-intellectualism” (p. 339).
Feminist science studies scholar
Banu Subramaniam also uses “willful” to describe the pattern of her
women’s studies colleagues’ refusal to be scientifically literate. She
describes a colleague coming to her office to ask about breast milk
production as an example. She continues to express frustration at the
entire field’s ignorance of science as a systematic “willful refusal to
be scientifically and technologically literate” (2005, p. 235). The
example of asking a evolutionary biologist who studied plants about
breast milk shows us not only a misunderstanding of how science works
but an assumption that scientists know about everything having to do
with science and health—a good example of “reverent disdain” (Willey
& Subramaniam, 2017). I am not as interested in teasing out the
specifics of this illiteracy problem here, but I will note the
significance of an intentional, willful refusal to engage with science.
What might a willful refusal offer? I suggest we have focused more on
how it does not serve feminism than how this refusal might also serve
the goals of feminist science.
The willfulness that Fausto-Sterling
and Subramaniam lament might be read instead as an important, political
resistance to science. Ahmed (2014) argues for the political value of
willfulness, producing a willfulness archive of how this charge has
been made against those who threaten the social order or who are
disobedient, as a way to dismiss and/or discipline them. Therefore, her
popular feminist killjoy figure may be read as a politically willful
subject. Although she cautions us that not all acts of self-proclaimed
willfulness are politically righteous, she does give us a reason to
pause before denouncing and dismissing an act as willful.
A common metaphor used to discuss
feminism and science is that of two cultures (Subramaniam, 2005). If we
consider the power differences between different cultures, we might see
how a non-English speaker living in an English-speaking country and
refusing to speak or learn English may be read as a political act of
willful refusal against cultural imperialism. To be illiterate in this
case might be an important act of resistance. How might we use this
analogy to think about scientific illiteracy? In Jean Barr and Lynda
Birke’s (1998) work on women and adult science education, they describe
what is commonly seen as “ignorance” of science as potentially
resistant. Barr and Birke found that sometimes the women they
interviewed chose non-scientific explanations to describe the “natural”
world even though they knew the scientific ones . They also point out
that Emily Martin (2001) has similarly argued that what might at first
appear as scientific illiteracy among working class women was actually
a resistance to medical authority on the subject of menstruation.
Therefore, Barr and Birke (1994) argue that women are not just
“alienated” from science, but also actively resist science.
Next I explore some of the reasons
why we might need or want to resist the power of science. Both Ruth
Hubbard, a trained biologist and the first woman tenured in biology at
Harvard University, and feminist philosopher Sandra Harding respond to
Fausto-Sterling’s “Building Two-Way Streets” essay by taking issue with
the way Fausto-Sterling talks about women’s chosen ignorance about
science (Hubbard et al., 1993). Hubbard argues that she is also
concerned that feminists do not know enough about science but explains
this as a consequence of women’s exclusion. She points to the
systematic ways that those disenfranchised are kept ignorant about
science and kept away from its epistemic power (p. 45-48). Sandra
Harding demonstrates the deep historical roots of this exclusion and
makes a call for us to interrogate those legacies for Western sciences
(p. 49-55). These points are relevant to how we judge scientific
illiteracy by feminists or by populations that have been systemically
harmed and/or kept out of science. They are also important to how we
move forward in engaging with science.
It is vitally important to remember
that many of us were unable to do science because it we were denied
full access. Feminist studies scholars who were trained as scientists
have documented how we were unable to do science in proper science
spaces because of direct discrimination or because we asked questions
that were inappropriate for science spaces (Fox-Keller, 1977; Roy,
2004; Giordano, 2014). Hubbard et al. (1993) discuss the ways that once
you start to analyze science itself and ask questions, you are not
This points to a problem. We can’t
do science the way we need to once we begin to be exposed to feminist
critiques of science. There are systematic ways that we are stopped
from pursuing feminist science questions and feminist methodologies.
Toward a Queer Science of Failure: Embracing Science Literacy and Illiteracy in the Undoing of Science and Doing of New Queer Sciences
In The Queer Art of Failure,
Judith Halberstam argues that “Under certain circumstances failing,
losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in
fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of
being in the world” (2011, pp. 2–3). I draw on this idea to propose a
queer science of failure that is focused on the ways that failing,
unmaking, undoing, and not knowing science may lead to a more just
I use the word queer to suggest not
only a challenge to capitalism but also a challenge to the categories
of human/nonhuman and normal/abnormal that science has enforced and
drawn on for success. Halberstam argues that we can read a history of
successes and failures under capitalism in multiple ways and suggests
reading the history of failures as “a tale of anticapitalist, queer
struggle” (2011, p. 88). However, drawing on Foucault’s (1976) earlier
example of Marxism, we must remember that a new anti-capitalist science
in and of itself will not necessarily “unsettle” (Wynter, 2003)
colonial, racial, and gendered power. I find usefulness in Wynter’s
emphasis on not only the Coloniality of Power but also the merging of
Being/Power/Truth/Freedom because what is at stake in unsettling
coloniality is the definition of the human itself. This point is an
important place of shared concern between feminist science studies and
decolonial and postcolonial studies (Pollock & Subramaniam, 2016).
I read Wynter’s call for a new science (2003) to produce a new
descriptive statement of the human as similar to the stated purposes of
this special issue to read feminism as “doing science.” However, I
suggest we hesitate before embracing the term “science” and go back to
Wynter’s (1984) earlier calls for “rewriting knowledge.” This new
science/rewriting of knowledge is about undoing the disciplinary
boundaries and truth that produce “narratively condemned status[es]” of
Others/nonhuman humans (Wynter, 1994). It is also about “unsettling”
the relationships between Being, Power, Truth, and Freedom that were
stuck together through processes of colonization (Wynter, 2003).
What can we gain from reading
feminist scientific “failures” differently? In critiquing the much-used
metaphor of a science pipeline, Banu Subramaniam (2009) questions our
obsession with plugging the leaks and wonders whether the metaphor of
the pipe itself may be the problem. She asks whether a reorientation to
the metaphor might have us celebrating escape from the pipe instead.
Birke also critiques the practice of using scientific education to make
people fit better into a science that is not meeting our needs: “Many
people perceive things to be not quite right in the science camp, while
scientists and educationalists are wondering how to persuade more
people to pitch tents there” (1991, p. 17).
Reading this together with Halberstam’s (2011) queer art of failure, we might ask, have feminist scientist “defectors”1 left
the science camp, broken out of the pipeline and produced a “queer
science of failure” that we should celebrate? And if so, then how
should we read desires and calls for laboratories of our own so that we
do not simply continue building that same pipeline through new
territories, colonizing more area by pitching science tents? I argue
that if we focus on the political consequences of our arguments we can
use them to say we need laboratories of our own to fulfill our passions
to produce knowledges about our worlds and bodies. This would mean
broadening science rather than simply gaining inclusion in science as
In Defense of Scientific Illiteracy, and Unknowing Science
Independent artist, filmmaker, and
activist Lucía Egaña Rojas writes in “Notes on a Transfeminist
Technology” (2013) that “A transfeminist technology will value
illiteracy for its improductiveness for industry, as a way of finding
paths unimagined by speed and productivity.” Rojas advocates creating
new worlds by being gender illiterate and acknowledging how the
positive relationship between epistemic power/authority and literacy
devalues the knowledge of many of the world’s poorest inhabitants. I
draw on Rojas’s exploration of illiteracy before I delve into an
argument for critical science literacy to leave space open for the
importance of scientific illiteracy as a failure that threatens the
supremacy of scientific knowledges. Although it is not the goal of this
article, I hope this opens up questions about what kinds of scientific
illiteracy we might embrace to destabilize science and remake knowledge
Decolonial activists in South Africa
who were part of the Fees Must Fall movement (that stemmed from the
Rhodes Must Fall movement) came under intense fire when some suggested
a total abolishment of science was necessary to remake new sciences. A
video of one activist speaking at a university event about science went
viral in October 2016 with the hashtag #ScienceMustFall. The online
commentaries showed how attacks on science were used to delegitimize
the activists’ movement. The activist’s description of science as a
colonial project that needed to be abandoned was not just rejected but
taken as evidence of ignorance. Yet, the activist also mentioned in her
brief comments that she was once a science student and suggested that
it is because of the boundaries of what counts as real science that she
did not continue in the sciences. She is another one of the science
failures that I suggest we listen to and engage with as we rethink
feminist engagement with science. My point here is to foreground what
might be called an anti-science approach to creating new knowledges
before I move into reclaiming science teaching as science, to argue for
undoing and unknowing science—failing at science.
“Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can’t, Teach”: Teaching Critical Science Literacy
Here I come back to those of us
trained as scientists who have ultimately failed to continue in science
proper. I use these case studies to develop the idea of teaching
critical science literacy as part of a queer science of failure. I use
“queer science of failure” to attach science to both “queer” and
“failure” and claim the practices I outline below as knowledge
production activities themselves, as always political, and always
challenging capital S Science. Many of us defectors are not able to
return to lab bench science for the reasons mentioned above. However, I
posit here that we continue to engage in science through our teaching.
We might further read the popular saying meant to devalue teachers
through Ahmed’s (2014) work on willing and willful subjects. The
failure to “do” science then might be seen as a willful political
gesture against a science that reproduces injustices. I argue that the
defectors among us can’t
do it any longer. We often try to stay in the sciences and make change
from within. At some point, however, we realize the limits of our work
from within as feminist spies.2 When
being feminist spies is not enough, we have to imagine other ways of
becoming knowledge producers. I argue that many of us, when we just
can’t take it any longer, turn to teaching critical science studies,
thus creating our own feminist science labs in women’s studies
classrooms. And by turning to teaching, specifically teaching in
women’s studies, we not only fail at being a part of science proper but
also fail at capitalism. Halberstam’s goal in The Queer Art of Failure
is to use examples of art “to think about ways of being and knowing
that stand outside of conventional understandings of success,” arguing
“that success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too
easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth
accumulation” (2011, p. 2). We defect and choose to take lower-paying
jobs, devalued in not only economic terms but in social status and
power. Perhaps claiming that we choose this route of failure (teaching)
is giving too much agency to us without acknowledging the historic ways
that people of color and women are overrepresented in these underpaid
professions. As I point out in the previous section, many of us can’t
do science because we are systematically kept out of the practice.
While acknowledging this, here I collapse these reasons for not being
able to do science into one failure to examine. I suggest we pause to
embrace this queer failure. This failure might lead us to undo science
through our teaching of critical science literacy or “und” the
legitimacy of science as a neutral method or set of disciplines that
can be compatible with feminism/feminists. At the same time, I argue
that through this kind of teaching and delegitimizing of science, we
create new definitions of science—ones that are politically grounded in
social justice and the politics of location—so we are therefore also
“doing” or creating new sciences (lower case, plural).
Subramaniam (2005) asks “What would
it mean for women’s studies to engage with the sciences as its own? Not
at arms length, not with fear, not with paranoia, but owning it as ours
to shape, to empower? What would it mean for us to have laboratories of
our own?” (p. 238). To answer this question, first, I argue that we
need to acknowledge that the reasons people fear of science are real
and not paranoid delusions of potential harm. I also like the idea of
owning science as our own. How might we then move forward in utilizing
science, then, while holding on to why we should be fearful and so as to not reify unjust power?
Here I outline how we can move
forward with an ethical and politically strategic engagement with
science through critical science literacy. There are two parts to this.
First, we must undo science by expanding access to a kind of knowledge
that is traditionally kept out of the hands of marginalized groups so
that we might better critique the epistemic authority of science.
Second, we must do new sciences by expanding or changing the definition
of science to include our pedagogical approaches as part of “doing
science.” Throughout, it is important that we leave space for
resistance through non-engagement so that we are not positioning
ourselves in opposition to those willfully resisting engaging science
through illiteracy. We must instead understand the importance of
multiple strategies of resistance.
I posit there is a disjuncture
between what we are saying and doing. We keep saying we need to do
science. But what if we stop and see what we are already doing? We can
be politically strategic about how we redistribute power—particularly
epistemic privilege—through our feminist critiques of science and
critical science literacy work. Nearly all science-trained feminists
have published on education or pedagogy in some form since leaving the
sciences (including Barad, Birke, Fausto-Sterling, Hubbard, Roy,
Weasel, Whatley, and myself). If we give up on the metaphors of two-way
streets and two parallel worlds that each need to equally change and
instead take up the idea of science and feminism as an unequal pairing,
with science occupying a privileged place, we might go back to feminist
antiracist politics instead. Coming from this position we might see our
role as feminists trained in the sciences as helping to teach critical
science literacy skills based on our first-hand knowledge of the
sciences. And through this understanding we might take this parallel
further and find a more liberatory science laboratory practice focused
on redefining sciences both inside and outside the academy.
This brings me to the first part of
my proposal for a politically just, critical science literacy project:
our teaching is about producing new scientific knowledges. Many of us
science- and non-science-trained women’s studies professors may be
teaching and engaging with science without realizing it. For example,
as part of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded two-way streets
project, Bates college faculty (Baker, Shulman, & Tobin, 2001)
found that women’s studies faculty at first saw science as something
that needed to come from outside their classes and research. However,
they found to the surprise of organizers and faculty participants that
the feminist studies faculty were able to produce critical science
studies curriculum from science that they were already engaging with in
their teaching and research. That is, there was an assumption shared by
the feminist scholars that they did not really do science or understand
I am making a claim here that
critical science literacy is not simply learning how to read or engage
with science but is doing science itself. To make this claim, I use
feminist science studies and a basic definition of literacy to define
the terms “science” and “literacy.” I begin by going back to the
foundational science studies tenet that all scientific knowledge is
socially situated. That is, science is not ever simply produced in scientific laboratories.3 Feminist
philosopher Helen Longino (1990) uses this principle to argue that we
cannot have feminist science until we make culture itself feminist. I
suggest here that we read critical engagement with science as a more
direct form of intentional scientific knowledge making. The second
definition we must understand is that of “literacy.” Literacy is not
simply the act of reading but is defined by the ability to write.
Although basic science literacy is usually taught as a way for the
public to engage in science believing rather than science making,
feminist critical science literacy is part of a tradition of producing
responsible scientific actors across disciplines (Giordano, 2017). Why
do we see science literacy as simply reading or understanding science
rather than the ability to write it? In this case, I identify critical
science literacy as re-writing scientific knowledge.
The idea of broadening the responsible
actors of science is popular among feminist science studies scholars.
For example, in Karen Barad’s (2001) work on agential literacy she
explains that one of her courses “was designed to enable students to
learn science while thinking about science, and to learn that thinking
about science is part of doing science” (p. 240). Similarly, in Common Science
Barr and Birke (1998) define a critical science education as one that
broadens our definition of those responsible for and those who should
take part in science: “A critical science education would, in
consequence, involve working with women’s groups in the community,
drawing on their own agendas, whether to do with housing, health, roads
or the environment, in an effort to develop more broadly based
‘scientific communities.’ The kind of science education we envisage
here is an aspect of citizenship education of ‘pedagogy through
politics’ rather than a pedagogy centered solely on the classroom” (p.
136). The point here is that science education, which I argue is
science making, is not simply about discovering truths but instead is
about producing politically and socially directed knowledge—knowledge
that is about intentionally redefining ourselves, the human, and our
This brings me to my second point, which is
that we must carefully define the need for science literacy. I argue
that we should see it as producing knowledge about our worlds and
bodies through a redistribution of epistemic authority. A queer science
of failure that is based in science literacy would allows us to
challenge old knowledges and create new knowledges.
One way to question Science is to critique
the philosophical aspects of the field. Another is to learn to read
science and critique the methods and results of specific studies
(Whatley, 1986; Barr & Birke, 1994). In part, science maintains a
special status because its products are not accessible to a wide range
of people. There are physical barriers to finding science articles as
well linguistic barriers to reading science writing. One practical and
useful role for science studies scholars, especially those trained as
scientists, is to make it possible for more people to understand
scientific practice and writing. Once again, this is not a new idea.
Here we might want to think about returning to teaching and critique as
queer failure at producing the “new.”
Whatley (1986) argues that “what is more
crucial than just supplying more accurate information to use as
ammunition in debates is to help students develop alternative
hypotheses, to see the roles social, cultural, and political factors
can play in what appear at first to be biological issues” (pp.
186-187). She gives examples of how this can be incorporated into
physical education classes to help students develop an understanding of
physical ability, hormones, strength, and the social aspects that
co-produce each of these concepts. More recently, Deboleena Roy’s
(2012) detailed methodology for reading and engaging with science was
included in a handbook for feminist methodologies.
In my own teaching and research I have
developed a kind of critical science literacy practice (Giordano,
2017). My students learn about the process of how science moves from
the laboratory to publication, how to track down the primary science
publications that popular news report on in brevity, and how to apply
feminist critiques of science to understand and engage with scientific
results. In upper-level classes, students draw on these skills while
bringing together a wide variety of knowledge sources to
collaboratively produce zines about science and health topics. This
practice has produced organic engagements with science. For example, in
one semester students used the skills developed in the course to
produce a strategic collective response to anti-immigrant population
control environmentalism propaganda that was circulating on campus and
in the larger community around Earth Day. In this case, the
relationships between who counts as “human” and how scientific
discourses are mobilized in environmental discourse to control the
movement of bodies and capital was clear. In this way, queer critiques
of science allowed the students to challenge racist, anti-immigrant
arguments, thereby producing new knowledge about our bodies and worlds.
I argue that each of these examples
illustrates not simply reading and critiquing science but important
engagements and the doing of science in women’s studies classrooms. I
argue for a queer science of failure in which we revalue teaching and
education and redefine science as not simply what is done in proper wet
labs. Although I have focused on those of us with science PhDs in this
article, I conclude by suggesting we consider counting all of us as
“failures”—including those of us who dropped out of the pipeline in
elementary school, those of us who never found our way to the pipeline
to begin with, and those of us who had to hack our way out later
downstream. This means that we must make room in feminist spaces for
those without science PhDs to be legitimate critical science literacy
educators and producers of scientific knowledge. Critical science
literacy and teaching is but one form of many possibilities for new
sciences. I suggest we embrace an irreverent disdain for traditional
science and instead practice feminist science by always keeping central
the epistemic power that we are challenging, using, and risk reifying
through our claims to “do science.” I encourage others to build their
own archives of queer sciences of failure. What might willful
resistance look like within and outside of feminist classrooms? How
might we create space in these times for a much needed anti-science,
antiracist, feminist approach to knowledge production?
1 Those of us who left the sciences proper do not universally embrace the term defector.
2 Deboleena Roy (2004)
uses the term “feminist spy” in passing to describe the challenge of
being a feminist pursuing her PhD in the natural sciences.
3 Also, much of the
work done by scientists in proper science spaces is not conducted in
laboratories either. Lead researchers spend much of their time writing
grants and journal articles and supervising student workers and
laboratory assistants, rather than working directly with hands-on
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Sara Giordano is an
Assistant Professor with a specialty in feminist science studies. Dr.
Giordano received a PhD in Neuroscience from Emory University in 2008.
Dr. Giordano has worked as an ethics consultant for the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention. Their research focuses on critical
science literacy, the democratization of science and questions of
scientific accountability more