Brilliant students in and out of a goldfish bowl….

Last semester, I had the good fortune to be the Teaching Assistant on fascinating third year/Masters course called Wildlife in the Age of Humans. Taught by Dr Aurora Fredriksen and Prof Noel Castree, it’s a thorough exploration of issues of conservation (of what, by who, for what?), (de)-extinction and so much more. This semester, same fortune. It is slightly easier, since I’m more familiar with the material, and I have bigger seminar groups (that said, small groups can work well, but you have to work harder!).

This blog is an account of what we did this afternoon, in two seminars on the same material. I include no individual student’s names or things-that-would-identify, obvs and the only criticisms I’d make are of my own thinking through (esp of the first seminar).

In the lecture on Tuesday Aurora had laid out the meaning(s) of extinction. The seminar task (which as far as I could tell everyone had done) was to watch a TEDtalk by Stewart ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ Brand on  The dawn of de-extinction: are you ready?and then read a critique article of that TED talk, van Dooren and Rose (2013) “Keeping faith with death: mourning and deextinction

The specific seminar task was to come to seminars ready to debate de-extinction:
– Is it a good idea? Why or why not?- What might this debate tell us about wider debates around the extinction crisis?

So, I started both seminars sharp (trying to instil “turning up on time”) with a cartoon, having made sure that everyone was okay with the f-bomb.  The previous week I’d had them read out – one sentence each – this fantastic quote from an eco-thriller by the late Julian Rathbone.

“Wrong. Nature in the Middle Ages was a hierarchy, a chain of being, a pyramid from the many at the base to the One at the top. A description that mirrored the society that described it. For the first industrialists and the Age of Reason it was a machine, an engine, a thing of many distinct parts held together by checks and balances like the American Constitution, and expected to work like a clock or a factory. For Charles Darwin Junior, for AFI, Nature is a state of war, of endless ruthless competition between the strong, and repression and exploitation of the weak by the strong. But what is she really? An endlessly, incomprehensibly complex web of interactions, of dependencies in which the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts, and where no parts are intrinsically more important than any of the others. Is that really what she is? Or is that Nature the way a socialist society might want to see her? Deep thoughts, and, of course, because of them, I lost the way…”

page 290 of Zdt by Julian Rathbone

And the cartoon that says the same, only with swearing, is here(and don’t forget to click on the red button!)

The first group didn’t get to see this TED talk parody, the second group did, cause I accidentally solved the speaker volume problem. On reflection, it probably wasn’t worth four minutes of the latter group’s time #seemedlikeagoodideaabeforehand.

Everyone was then asked to place themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, with ‘5’ not allowed, where 1 was “what are you waiting for? Go for it, I bagsy a pet Dodo” and 10 was “you insane technocratic monsters belong in a cage.” I asked for people to shout out where they were up to.

Then, in the first group, I made my ‘big mistake’. I launched straight into the goldfish bowl’ exercise where I put three chairs inthe iddle of the circle, facing each other, and invited three students to come and start hashing out their viewpoints. There were some volunteers, eventually, and a very high quality discussion ensued, but you could see that there was also a fair amount of nerves in those watching. At one point I had to enter the goldfish bowl as a participant. I then ‘froze’ the bowl, and had people work in pairs, one putting forward their view and the other playing ‘devil’s advocate’ and opposing it. Then we went back to the goldfish bowl, and it worked well enough, but we ended it and then had a general discussion about what people had learned so far on the course, what folks had found interesting, things they’d read that they would recommend or wanted to read (one tip – ‘DDecolonising Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation.’
I threw in a couple – Exterminate all the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist, and a quick disquisition on ‘the Great Chain of Being’.

What I learnt from that first seminar – and changed for the second seminar – was to have that pair work at the very outset, to give people a chance to test out some ideas, hear themselves talking etc.

The first seminar had 14 or 15 students, the second seminar 24 or 25. The same gender mix (approx 50:50, and as far as you can tell the same mix of extroverts/introverts etc. So, it may simply be that because the second group was bigger, there was less trouble keeping the three chairs ‘filled, but I like to believe (and will base future goldfish bowls on the assumption) that the pairwise warm-up exercise made it easier for people to sit in the hot seats (though checking out the body language, and hearing people afterwards, those who were watching were doing so very actively, even intently, and said they got a lot out of it.)

Calling a halt to the goldfish bowl, I then asked folks if anyone had shifted their position in light of the debates – there were a couple of people in either direction, who I asked to say what arguments had swayed them.

Given that we’d been talking about de-extinction, and the film ‘Jurassic Park’ had come up on several occasions, it was necessary to finish the both seminars with the riddle – ‘what kind of dinosaur would you play hide and seek with?’ In both seminars the answer was shouted out –

A “do you think he saw us”?





PS I’d also be super-clear on the ‘rules’ of the goldfish bowl – that you can’t speak unless you’re in it, that you CAN re-enter it, and that the other people in it are the ones who matter most.

PPS Seriously smart students.

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