Critical thinking, Creative thinking & Gender

A. Consider this schema that I used to discuss the idea of creativity in context:
It is clearly complex: Many strands, many cross-connections, many things going on in addition to the focal outcome.

Now consider this simpler image, where the light bulb stands for an idea or inspiration that a creative brain comes up with:

Even that additional elements of this logo from the Critical & Creative Thinking graduate program present a simple image:

B. The contrast between the first schema and the simpler images speaks to my sense of critical thinking as thinking that depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. We understand things better when we have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives (Taylor 1995, cited in Taylor 2001).

C. Now consider the following three levels of analysis of gender in relation to knowledge-making (based on previous post [originally made 3/3/13 on a blog for a course Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology ])

    #1. Under-representation of women in research areas and in technological design.
    Obstacles to and under-recognition of their contributions.
    Possibilities for women’s standpoint to address aspects of the world under-recognized by men.

    #2. Biases in knowledge and technologies [and language] that claim to represent progress, efficiency, or other universal interests,
    but in practice promote the unequal social status of men over women.

    #3. The pervasiveness of gender-like dualisms in which one category is subordinate to the other and complex spectra are purified into dichotomies.
    The suppression of overlapping ranges, multiplicities and hybrids that trouble these conceptual schemes.

D. These three levels provide a set of tensions on which to build critical thinking. For example, if we observe under-recognition of contributions of women, we might look for places where women’s contributions are recognized and compare the two situations. Moreover, the set of tensions as a whole exists in tension with a fourth level, namely:

    #4. The contribution of gendered resources among the heterogeneous resources that knowledge-makers link together over time as they construct and reconstruct established knowledge and reliable technologies.

What is a “resource” and what makes one “gendered”? A: “[R]esearchers establish knowledge and develop their practices through diverse and often modest practical choices, which is the same as saying they are involved in contingent and on-going mobilizing of materials, tools, people, [themes] and other resources into webs of interconnected resources” (Taylor 2005, 225). A gendered resource is, therefore, some material, tool, group of people, theme, and so on that is associated with one gender more than another (as in #1) or biases against women hidden underneath what is supposedly universal (as in #2) or viewing the world in dualisms that resonate with the preceding (as in #3). Lest this sound too negative, a very significant source of resources has been the existence of a feminist movement(s) that provides solidarity and support around efforts to contest the inequalities.

A further tension (for critical thinking) is that people talk about angles #1-3 as if they have weight on their own, not as part of the complexity of #4. Yet another tension is seeing such talk as a resource, among others, in the heterogeneous construction.

E. Look back at the initial schema. The *’s denote multiple points of engagement. Using the critical thinking tensions above can be a way to insert gender into the intersection of strands (or heterogeneous construction). No engagement on its own suffices to change the focal outcome; they need to be linked together and even then there is no guarantee that the outcome will shift the way intended. Linking engagements together means collaborating with others given that each person’s position, skills, and resources prepares them only for a subset of possible engagements.

F. The idea of collaboration in linking multiple, partial engagements within intersecting strands that do not guarantee an outcome recalls a metaphor from my paper, “We know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge“: “One’s development as a critical thinker is like a personal journey into unfamiliar or unknown areas. Both involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, require support, yields personal change, and so on.”

This picture is different from the view of critical thinking as scrutinizing the reasoning, assumptions, and evidence behind claims. And from critical as judgement and finding fault according to some standards. Journeying draws attention to the inter- and intra-personal dimensions of people developing their thinking.

G. This picture of critical thinking parallels the picture of creative thinking as a process in context that led me to adapt a schema for the heterogeneous construction of knowledge into the original schema in this post:

Each of us navigates the distributed complexity in part by trying to impart order according to our sense of our self—our identity, aspirations or goals, and will to choose among goals and move towards them.
We achieve some goals and then have greater capacity, knowledge, skills, plans, and direction to keep moving and developing.
We also have setbacks and revise our goals.  Indeed, our self-directedness can be buffeted or even threatened by the order-imparting efforts of other people navigating their distributed complexities.
Yet relationships with others are a source of resources and support (material, emotional, etc.) from outside ourselves, which help shape how far and in what directions our movement and development happens.
Relationships are also a source of unplanned conjunctions or intersections that we draw from.
Such connections can help us to not simply continue along previous lines and, at the same time, to clarify our sense of directedness as individuals.

H. In one sense this picture is about the complexity of angle #4 on gender in relation to knowledge-making. In another sense — a sense in tension with that — the picture reminds us of a simple theme often associated with feminist analyses: interdependency and interrelatedness is the foundation for our existence — from the single celled zygote to the newborn and onwards.

I.  Two parting questions, repeated from the previous post:  a) What case studies and situations in the material world to engage in in order to complement the abstraction of A-H?  b) How does this all translate into the terms used by feminist teachers now and in previous decades?

Taylor, Peter J. (2001) “We know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge: Journeying to develop critical thinking,”
—- (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

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