Diagramming of Intersecting Processes (a teaching activity)

I want more people to think in terms of intersecting processes, which means being able to read the diagrams I present, appreciate the theoretical implications of the concept, start to make their own accounts and diagrammatic depictions, and teach others to do the same.  Thus this teaching activity.

Goals for students
1. to understand the development of biomedical and social phenomena in terms of linkages among processes of different kinds and scales that build up over time—genetics, treatment, family and immediate social context, social welfare systems and economics, wider cultural shifts, ….
2. to use graphic organizers to help them visualize such “intersecting processes” and to identify places where detail is missing and where further inquiry is needed.
3. [depending on level of students and prior preparation] to contrast the implications of thinking in terms of direct causation (like spokes going to a hub) with “heterogeneous construction.”

Instructions
Pre-session reading:
Paul, D. (1997). Appendix 5. The history of newborn phenylketonuria screening in the U.S. Promoting Safe and Effective Genetic Testing in the United States. N. A. Holtzman and M. S. Watson. Washington, DC, NIH-DOE Working Group on the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Human Genome Research: 137-159. http://biotech.law.lsu.edu/research/fed/tfgt/appendix5.htm

Excerpt from Taylor, P. J. (2001). Distributed agency within intersecting ecological, social, and scientific processes. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. S. Oyama, P. Griffiths and R. Gray. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press: 313-332 on The development of severe depression in a sample of working class women.

Phase A: Mini-lecture to introduce the ideas under goals 1 and 2 and the use of diagrams to identify missing detail (goal 2). Followed by Question & Answer.

Phase B: Following the procedure below, diagram Paul (1997) article with respect to either a) the life-course of a female with PKU detected by neo-natal screening for PKU; or b) the routinization of neo-natal screening for PKU in the United States. Followed by discussion of potential and limitations of the diagramming activity (for discussion among colleagues or for teaching).

a) the life-course of a female with PKU detected by neo-natal screening:
1. Identify important connections mentioned in the article (from p. 7ff) between things in the following categories or strands (open to adaptation): Condition of person with PKU; Diagnosis and care; Social support; and Wider social context.
2. Arrange the things as well as you can given the information available on parallel strands according to age of the person.

b) the routinization of neo-natal screening for PKU in the United States:
1. Identify important connections mentioned in the article between things in the following categories or strands (open to adaptation): Experience of persons with PKU (condition, care, social support); Advocacy (pro + con); State mandates & regulation; Research; and Wider social context.
2. Arrange the things as well as you can given the information available on parallel strands according to year (from 1930s to 1990s allowing more space for 1960 through 1980).

For both a) and b):
3. Draw dotted lines to show connections between things.
4. Identify connections about which you want to know more. Use the ideas under goal 3 as a checklist.
5. Note where these instructions were hard to put into practice.

Example of connection for a): mandated test (social support) and neo-natal initiation of special diet (diagnosis & care)
Example of connection for b): enthusiasm for biomedical prevention of mental retardation over education/social support/rehabilitation of retarded persons (wider social context) and promotion of PKU screening in advance of research on effects of diet (state mandates & regulation/ research)

Acknowledgement: This unit draws inspiration and some ideas from Matthew Puma’s adaptation of my teaching about intersecting processes in CrCrTh 640 during Spring 2002.

Draft 8 Feb 2004; revised 17 April 2005

———————-
Reflections on teaching activity

This activity is still under development. Some issues that have arisen:
1. What do arrows mean? Mechanisms, material connections; Increase in probability; Makes possible; or Makes significant
2. Some participants wanted to focus on explaining a specific outcome.
3. Technologies of representation, e.g., colors for countervailing processes
4. Are we representing an individual or a population or a generic individual + variation

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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