Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Comments on the keynote speech to Alpha Chi Honor Society



Speech at Louisville – John Janovy, Jr.

Last fall I was invited to give the keynote address at the national Alpha Chi convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Alpha Chi is a national honors organization; most of the chapters are at smaller colleges and universities; students in the top 10% of their class are eligible for membership. The invitation was issued by Bill Clemente, an English professor at Peru State College, who is vice-president of the national council. The convention was held last week, April 6-9; attendance was maybe five or six hundred, including students and faculty members. The invitation to be their keynote speaker was a major honor. The title of that talk was, of course, “Life Lessons from a Parasite.”

The title was chosen mainly because the Alpha Chi theme is Transcending Boundaries, and of the things that parasites do well, at least as species, it’s to transcend boundaries, particularly ecological ones. Thus the life cycle of a typical trematode is wonderful material to use metaphorically, and of course I chose Posthodiplostomum minimum as my subject. This trematode lives as an adult in fish-eating birds; eggs are shed and first stage larvae develop in snails; cercariae emerge from snails, penetrate small fish, and develop into infective stages. These larvae end up in various tissues, including the eyes. Prevalence varies over the years, depending on how the South Platte River flows, which in turn is based on Rocky Mountain snowpack.

You can see immediately where this narrative is going. A parasite that infects the eyes influences how the host sees the world. A parasite whose prevalence in fish depends on Rocky Mountain snowpack is a parasite whose life is controlled, in part, by events that are distant in time and space. These kinds of relationships are easy to turn into metaphors. For example, we might ask the question: what do the following items have in common?

Zika virus, Ebola virus, influenza, HIV, Cryptosporidium parvum, MRSA, mumps, measles, tuberculosis, Dengue, Giardia intestinalis, West Nile virus, cholera, Cyclospora cyatenensis, SARS, MERS, Lyme borreliosis, poliovirus.

The answer is pretty obvious, namely, that they move through populations by way of various mechanisms; some folks get infected; others are shielded or immune; and everyone, especially people in positions of power and responsibility, needs to understand both the mechanisms by which these agents move through populations and the consequences of such movement. We could easily, of course, ask the same question about the following items:

Snapchat, rumors, fake news, smart phones, money, handguns, rap music, selfies, Pokémon Go, torn jeans, Middle Eastern names, “immigrant,” plastic water bottles, “LGBTQ,” “abortion,” recipes, bad ideas, lettuce and broccoli, car parts.

Again, the answer is pretty obvious, namely, that they move through populations by way of various mechanisms; some folks acquire or accept them; others are shielded from them, or reject them; and everyone, especially people in positions of power and responsibility, needs to understand both the mechanisms by which these agents move through populations and the consequences of such movement. Furthermore, some are only words (LGBTQ, immigration, abortion) that elicit strong responses in people, others provide power (money, guns), and still others enter our personal realms by way of the media and because of distant events over which we have little or no control (Middle Eastern names).

At some point toward the end of this talk I used the term “divisiveness” as an example of a meme that had taken on significant power in recent decades. In other words, it is an entity that is moving through our population, producing reactions, depending on the prior exposure of the recipient. During the question and comment session that followed, two students made comments that I thought were truly profound.

One student indicated that I had characterized the meme “divisiveness” as negative, whereas in the past, it had been a driving force for people to participate in the political process, and indeed to effect change. I agreed with her completely. The other student asked whether I thought that divisiveness could function as a vector, carrying along other memes, or enhancing the extent to which those carried-along memes were accepted or rejected. I had to not only agree completely with this student, but it seemed to me that his idea might be a great one for a senior thesis in communications or journalism.




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