Last summer, I gave a talk at the Evolution meetings in a session focused on science communication. My main message was: there’s value in preaching to the choir. But, as I’ll explain in this post, that talk helped me realize something else: sometimes, what you think is your destination is really a starting point.
The idea of preaching to the choir is one I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially as a result of work I’ve been doing on student understandings of and views on climate change, in collaboration with Susan Cheng and JW Hammond. We started using that metaphor because we found that almost all students entered the course we studied already accepting that climate change is occurring: when asked “Do you think climate change is happening” at the beginning of the semester, 98% of students choose one of the “agree” options. (The paper is here and open access.) In the course we studied, one of the main messages of the lecture on climate change was that climate change is occurring. Given that most of the students already thought that prior to instruction, you could argue that this course was preaching to the choir. But one of the messages of our study was that there is value in that; as one indication that it had value, after instruction, students became more confident that climate change is occurring. There’s value in preaching to the choir! I thought that message applied to science communication more broadly, so decided to make this the theme of my Evolution talk.
Before writing a talk with that theme, though, I wanted to make sure that the way I use the metaphor is the way others use it, too. I googled it, which led to me finding this amazing piece by Rebecca Solnit. The focus of her essay is on political communication, but it is very applicable to science communication, too.
So, my Evolution talk ended up having several slides with quotes from Solnit’s piece, including this one:
Karen Haygood Stokes, a minister … explained …her aim is not so much to persuade people to believe as it is to encourage them to inquire into existing beliefs. “My task as a preacher is to find the places of agreement and then move someplace from there. Not to change anybody’s mind, but to deepen an understanding.” The common ground among her parishioners is not the destination; it’s the starting point: “Have we thought critically about why we agree?”
This quote really stood out when I was reading the Solnit piece, because it was so applicable to the work we’ve been doing on student views on climate change. When we look at their short answer responses, there is huge heterogeneity that is not captured by the statistic that 98% of them accept climate change coming into the course. When asked about what factors are contributing to climate change, some seem to understand things well enough that they might be able to teach the lecture, others have a partial understanding, others say they don’t really know, and still others seem to harbor misconceptions.
When I started the work, I viewed a student clicking “accept” as my destination. This work has made me realize it’s a starting point.
Based on this work, when I taught Intro Bio this past semester, I tried to focus less on hammering home the message that climate change is happening (they already think that!), and to focus more on how we know that, what it means, and what can be done to slow it. The common ground the students entered with was an opportunity to go deeper with the class.
After giving my talk at Evolution, I started noticing other examples of times when something I thought was a destination was also a starting point. Most notably, last year was my first year as a full professor. During that year, I spent a substantial amount of time working with Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School to develop and launch a task force focused on graduate student mental health. Some of why I had been able to work on that was due to the lucky coincidence of having a year-long sabbatical during my first year as a full professor. That combination made it really clear to me that I had an opportunity to do very different sorts of things than I had done before, including to work on things at a very different scale than I had before.
If you had asked me as a graduate student what my career destination was, probably the furthest off thing I would have named would have been being promoted to full professor. But now I’m there and most likely have 25+ years left in my career. So, it’s very clear that this destination is also really a starting point. And, in conversations I’ve had with others at similar career stages in the past year, I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.
So, I’m curious: What destination(s) have you reached only to realize it was a starting point?
A final thought: Just because a destination is a starting point doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate reaching that destination/starting point! But it does mean that it can also be an opportunity to reflect on not only where we’ve been, but also where we want to go.