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January 08, 2004

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Planet Beekeeping v. Planet Dialogue


The undergraduate semester uses dialogue-based learning to focus student education on public topics, with the objective of inspiring students with a sense of civic responsibility.
BY MARK WINSTON

I have embarked on a new academic adventure, one that has nothing, and
everything, to do with bees. My new enterprise involves starting a novel undergraduate teaching program at Simon Fraser University's centre for dialogue, in downtown Vancouver.

My new office is physically distant from our closest beeyard, but conceptually even further removed from teaching or research about bees, insects, or even biology.

This change in function is similar to an executive in a software company deciding to open an antique shop, or a gardener changing professions to become an auto mechanic.

Universities tend to be rigid institutions where a biologist remains in the biology department and an English professor stays within English. Interdisciplinary means that a biologist and chemist might work together, but for a biology professor to teach a course in urban studies . . . well, things usually just don't work that way.

Except, once in a while an unusual administrative distortion occurs, leading to opportunities that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries. At SFU, the opening of the Morris J. Wosk centre for dialogue created such an opportunity, and led to my initiating the undergraduate semester in dialogue at this new hub for discussion, conversation and study involving difficult societal issues.

My role has been to create that experience for undergraduate students. While our research on bees continues at the main campus just outside of Vancouver, all of my teaching and administrative responsibilities have been moved downtown to the centre for dialogue and this program.

The undergraduate semester uses dialogue-based learning to focus student education on public topics, with the objective of inspiring students with a sense of civic responsibility, encouraging their passion to improve society, and developing effective communication and analytical tools for problem solving. Students come from diverse departments within the university, and spend a full semester engaged in the program. The first course concerned nature, environment and society, the second the urban experience, focused on tough city issues such as social housing and transportation. Upcoming courses will include art and community (2004-3) and a second offering of the urban experience (likely in 2005-6).

This new world I have immersed myself in reminds me of the Starship Enterprise crew encountering alien civilizations. They speak a different language downtown, wear distinctive clothing and rarely go outside. Some days I move between the beekeeping planet and Planet Dialogue at warp speed, and the culture shock can be disorienting.

Except, I had a conversation the other day on my new planet that surprised me, and made me aware of how profoundly bees are influencing my approach to this new phase of my career. A journalist friend I have known for many years was interviewing me about the undergraduate semester program, and knowing my background she asked whether my other life with bees had any relevance to why and how I was participating in the centre for dialogue.

My initial reaction was no, of course not. What do bees have to do with dialogue? They don't talk. Still, her question nagged at me, and I began to realize that all those years I spent immersed in hives, bees walking all over my hands, hanging on to my bee suit, and buzzing in the air all around me, may have had more impact on my perspective than I realized. She got me thinking about a deeper question for all of us who have spent a good part of our lives out in the apiary: What the heck happens to us when we keep company with honey bees?

I've never been one to humanize bees and as a card-carrying biologist I'm not prone to attribute human intentions to other animals. Yet, there is much to learn from opening our minds to the persona of other species, particularly those that are social like ourselves.

For bees, their colony/society has one attribute that is intensely similar to our human culture, the dynamic between cooperation and conflict. Hives have leaders, the queen, and followers, the workers, but the boundaries between them are fluid and good communication is essential to maintain the public balance. Lack of communication, chemical for the bees and verbal for we humans, results in increased aggression and eventually chaos for both societies.

Our dialogue programs recognize that underlying conflicts between people can be positive forces for social change if mediated through the tools of conversation conducted from perspectives that accept the validity of diverse viewpoints. My time with the bees has provided me with an intuitive sensitivity for this healthy balance between cooperation and conflict, and a deep respect for the role of communication as the glue that can hold a society together or drive its individual components apart. In that way, bees are at the core of whatever contributions I am able to render at the centre for dialogue.

My time with bees also has provided me with a deep respect for interdisciplinary endeavors, especially because so much of my laboratory's research has focused on division of labour in honey bee colonies. Who could not respect the myriad, diversified human professions that foster harmonious societies after watching bees take on their many tasks in their well-organized and economic social structure?

I value the janitorial tasks of young worker bees as much as the pheromone production of the queen, the gritty defence job of the guard bees equally to the nurturing role of the nurse bees, the shopping tasks of foragers as significantly as the queen's egg-laying job.

Thus, I am predisposed to welcome the input of the humanities with the same value as the sciences, the comments of a bus driver with equal respect as I would the pronouncements of a professor. Perhaps I would have come to that equanimity with age and maturity anyway, but I'd prefer to believe that my visits to the bee yard have accelerated and intensified my own interdisciplinary bent.

My laboratory also has conducted considerable research on pollination, a field of study that provides deep lessons from the bees that can inform our human interactions. One key element for me that resonates both in bee biology and dialogue has been recognition of how important diversity is for both endeavors. Healthy pollination systems rely on diverse and abundant bee populations, both managed and feral, while dialogue thrives in an atmosphere of tolerance for varied points of view. In that way the biologic and the dialogic open windows into each other's disciplines.

Pollination also has taught me the importance of seemingly tiny, inconsequential bits of hard work in building the edifice of healthy ecosystems as well as societies. Consider the short visit of a single bee to a flower, only seconds in duration and only one of sometimes hundreds of floral visits a bee might make on a single trip.

Yet, each visit can set a fruit on the path to our dinner table, a seed on its way to creating the next generation of plants. Alone, one visit seems trivial, yet the tapestry of such single acts woven together creates ecological stability and agricultural abundance.

So it is with dialogue and conversation, where a chance phrase or comment may lead to profound truths and insights. Being open to the ideas available when we truly listen to others is a hallmark of effective dialogue, and is the mortar that holds the bricks of democratic, well-functioning societies together. Being receptive to such pollination is another valued lesson I have learned from the bees.

Mark Winston is a professor of biological sciences and director of the undergraduate semester in dialogue.















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