In this post, Glen Cousquer explores how the writings of the thinker Donna Haraway can accompany students on the adventure of gaining and producing transformative knowledge. Dr Cousquer lectures on and coordinates the MSc and MVetSci programmes in One Health and Conservation Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. This post is part of Teaching Matters Leaning & Teaching Enhancement Theme: Books that inspire our teaching.
The values that inform our University’s Strategic Plan for this Decade of Action include a commitment to transformation and self-improvement for the benefit of individuals, communities, societies and our world. This commitment means that our students are often hungry to learn how to navigate territories of transformational change that necessarily involve challenging the systems of domination that have long characterised and imposed singular truths upon our world. We are faced with a colonial and plantational legacy whose tentacular fingers stretch deep into our cultures, our ways of thinking and our academic disciplines including those sciences that historically have held themselves up as objective.
If we are to accept this call to adventure (Campbell, 2008, pp.41-56), we find ourselves in need of a guide who can accompany us on the way. In this blog, I wish to consider some of the many merits of Donna Haraway as a guide and thinking partner. Haraway is one of the most inspiring interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary scholars alive today; her work spans fields including, but not limited to, Science and Technology Studies, Anthropology, Feminist Studies, Animal Studies and the History of Science and Medicine. Perhaps most significantly, she is a leading theorist on relationships between people, other organisms and machines and how practices of relating construct our world and are open to reconstruction. She is also one of the scholars who has helped us to appreciate that all knowledge is situated, privileged and partial rather than objective (Haraway, 1988). Yes, indeed – privileged!
As a companion she is challenging and demanding for her approach does not respect boundaries. She is, however, a trusty travel companion to those of us wanting to decolonise science, to break out of silo-thinking and to explore creative methodologies and emergent complexities. Many of our students are tired of the hegemony and shackles of the traditional quantitative sciences and are seeking to ask deeper questions: questions about things that “go too deep to be captured by the accepted tools of the Western mind”, questions that “need cross-cultural and transdisciplinary analysis” (McIntosh, 2001, p.107). This, however, takes courage because capitalism and the industrial growth society that sprung up on the back of the plantations has long been subject to peer, shareholder and other forms of “authority”.
Readers may baulk at this. And well they might, but they are nevertheless invited to consider how (and where) this reaction may have been triggered. Why is it that our students are not encouraged to question authority? Why is it so difficult to question the ancestral and collective traumas of our colonial past? To what extent are we even aware of it?
The answer no doubt lies in our enculturation and how much we need to unlearn. Haraway writes (2016, p. 16): “Like all offspring of colonizing and imperial histories, I – we – have to relearn how to conjugate worlds with partial connections and not universals and particulars.” In drawing our attention to our connections, to our interconnectedness and to partiality, we are challenged to relinquish control and to appreciate the immense potential of emergent properties. We all know that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and yet it is far from clear that this permeates through into our teaching. We have only to consider, for example, how wedded to the controlled experiment we have become.
By facilitating Donna Haraway reading groups for postgraduate students keen to draw on Haraway and have her thinking animate their dissertations, I have been able to gather insights into how liberating it can be for students to be given permission to think and to question. This has been nothing short of revelatory. Many of our students have lost the confidence to question what they know to be wrong or immoral. Are we complicit in this? I fear so!
In the words of Haraway (2016, p.12):
It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories…
Given that so many of the stories, ties, descriptions, thoughts, knots and matters of today are the legacy of the colonial stories, ties, descriptions, thoughts, knots and matters we have inherited, we have a lot to disinherit. Haraway encourages us to embrace art-science worldings, creative methodologies and multispecies flourishing. This is about becoming with. This is about learning to live with and make with. This is about embracing sympoiesis as a way of thinking and being that is more conducive to liveable futures with a more-than-human world.
We are increasingly coming to realise that the challenges we face are so immense that we need to learn to recognise our inter-dependencies and to learn to collaborate. But how do we collaborate when our imagination and creativity has been stifled and suppressed?
Perhaps through greater openness… Haraway writes of collaborations with pigeons (2016, pp.15-16):
Pigeons have very old histories of becoming-with human beings. These birds tie their people into knots of class, gender, race, nation, colony, postcolony, and – just maybe – recuperating terra-yet-to-come. … Pigeons fly us not into collaborations in general but into specific crossings from familiar worlds into uncomfortable and unfamiliar ones to weave something that might come unravelled, but might also nurture living and dying in beauty in the n-dimensional niche space of Terrapolis. My hope is that these knots propose promising patterns for multispecies response-ability inside ongoing trouble.
Whether you prefer to adopt Haraway or the voyager pigeon as your travelling companion, I hope you are able to open yourself up to the possibilities of such encounters. Who knows, perhaps “becoming-with” may come to feature in the University’s vision for 2040.
- Campbell, J. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces. Novato, California: New World Library.
- Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
- Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14 (3), 575-599.
- McIntosh, A. (2001). Soil and soul: People versus corporate power. London: Aurum Press.
Glen is a recipient of this year’s EUSA Outstanding Commitment to Social Justice and Sustainability Award and the 2020 Social Responsibility and Sustainability Changemaker Awards in recognition of his work on sustainability across the University, including the embedding of deep listening and sustainability into postgraduate training courses for healthcare professionals.
Glen’s research into the health and welfare of pack animals on expedition and across the global mountain tourism industry led to the development of new industry standards and the development of multispecies awareness-based Action Research methodologies to help deliver emergent futures. This work has informed the development of dialogical approaches to establishing communities of practice and inquiry, change theory and practice for sustainability as well as more recent work on ecological pilgrimage that has led to the publication of a new guidebook on the Way of St Cuthbert. Since February 2018, he has been lecturing on and coordinating the MSc and MVetSci programmes in One Health and Conservation Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.