From “Ethos” to “Place”

I am walking boldly from “ethos” alone to “ethos and place”.

I am making a career move.

Since my undergraduate training in a liberal arts environment at Washington University in St. Louis, I’ve engaged knowledge and insights from many disciplinary perspectives while centering myself in the sciences.

I recall classes in literature, women’s studies, and African and African-American Studies (A&AAS)—the latter quite frankly to both learn about the experiences of Black Americans and Africans in the diaspora as much as to have the experience of a class taught by a Black professor. While studying biology, psychology, and math, these classes in literature, A&AAS, and women’s studies, among others impacted my intellectual pursuit of and engagement in my core disciplines.

I recall many conversations with my science professors about the cultural origins and global implications of scientific knowledge—such inquiries were often met with confusion, encouragement to “stay focused” on science, or on the rare occasion curiosity or encouragement.

Yet, I persisted.

Knowledge for me was never an individual pursuit alone, but a cultivation of my own curiosity which increased my individual knowledge and—because knowledge is communal in my family and culture of origin—a contribution to the collective knowledge of communities of which I was a part.

While my doctoral, postdoctoral, and (to-date) faculty positions have been in research-intensive institutions, I’ve always had a liberal arts “ethos” guiding my professional existence.

As a graduate student at UC Davis, I was actively involved in interdisciplinary communities, including the Ford Fellows Community, that allowed me to stay actively engaged in disciplines far beyond my own foci of biology and biochemistry. I read (and continue to do so) broadly—books and other scholarly works authored by my Ford Fellow colleagues and others in sociology, Black feminist theory, history, and more.

This interest outside my own scientific focus continued into my postdoctoral tenure at Indiana University and was formalized in my active involvement in communities focused on service learning and other community-engaged practices of taking knowledge outside academic spaces to impact local and community priorities. Such approaches that encourage pragmatic consideration of the impact of knowledge furthered my liberal arts and social engagement ethos.

The further cultivation and commitment to hold dear to such an ethos continued into my faculty career, despite expressed concerns that my commitment to “causes”—including work centered in equity and justice in the sciences, higher education, and far beyond—could be a distraction from my pursuit of scholarly “fame” and traditional forms of recognition.

Functioning based on a liberal arts ethos led me to consider (privately and publicly) not just what I was learning about plants and microbes in the experimental studies conducted by my research group to understand how these organisms perceive and respond to external environmental cues such as light and nutrient availability, but also to ask what can we learn from plants (#LessonsFromPlants) and microbes (#LessonsFromMicrobes) about how to be better humans—individually and in community.

Looking to plants and microbes as teachers is not an uncommon practice globally, although it can certainly be thought of as “outside of the box” in the sciences. Yet, these limitations do not guide one such as me who possesses a liberal arts ethos even when functioning in a research environment.

So, when invited to consider an opportunity to move from “ethos” to “place”—especially a place with expressed commitment to social responsibility and justice—I felt compelled to consider it.

Having engaged with a community dedicated to living out their expressed values and commitments, I knew this invitation was one I was eager to pursue.

Now I’m excitedly embarking on a new phase of my professional journey.

I am walking boldly from “ethos” alone to “ethos and place” as I prepare to join the Grinnell College community.

I look forward to sharing the journey ahead, including continuing to ask (as well as write about) how we collaboratively implement new means of leading and mentoring equitably, and what plants and other biological organisms and ecosystems have to teach us about that.

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM