How Humanities Studies Can Help Scientists Communicate Their Findings

In this episode of Room 42, Marybeth Shea, University of Maryland, brings you the tale of the English Professor in the chicken coop. A humanist, a social scientist, and a nitrogen/ammonia scientist specializing in flow across air, soil, and water systems walk into a poultry house… What happens next? Everything converges to solve a very complex, but not uncommon problem, demonstrating how to effectively communicate the need for–and the steps to–change some very wicked problems.

Airdate: May 4, 2022

Season 2 Episode 21 | 47 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:11.650] – Liz Fraley

Greetings, everyone, and welcome to Room 42. I’m Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions. I’m your moderator. This is Janice Summers from TC Camp. She’s our interviewer. And welcome to Marybeth Shea, today’s guest in Room 42. Marybeth Shea teaches advanced composition at the University of Maryland. These courses include professional and technical writing, where she typically instructs scientists and engineers in science writing, writing about the environment, and special sections under design for data analysis for computer science students.

[00:00:41.030] – Liz Fraley

She has also co-taught special courses on big data and visualization. Recently, she developed a gateway course for medical humanities with colleagues in history, languages, and literatures and philosophy. She also consults with scientists, particularly environmental science teams, about communicating their findings for policy. Today, Marybeth is here to help us in answering the question how humanity studies can help scientists communicate their findings. Welcome.

[00:01:08.750] – Marybeth Shea

Thank you. I feel more important than I am.

[00:01:13.490] – Janice Summers

You’re very important and we’re very excited to be talking to you.

[00:01:18.240] – Liz Fraley


[00:01:19.370] – Janice Summers

So how did you get involved in environmental technical writing? It seems you have a special emphasis in that.

[00:01:29.430] – Marybeth Shea

It’s one of those things that can happen with a great boom of failure or the door clang shut, and you’re not on the side that you want to be on. And it’s related to science. Before molecular biology could rise up and give us genetic analysis, the organizations on campus took place, and I was interrupted in my Botany, PhD– Botany disappeared. And they said, why don’t you go over to the policy school? Your fellowship will transfer. You like the environment and stuff.

[00:02:02.930] – Janice Summers

You like the environment and stuff?

[00:02:05.210] – Marybeth Shea

Kind of. And then I didn’t leave campus, I’m one of those people. So I’m a real *Terp story. And then it was the English Department going, oh, my God, we need someone to teach science for writing who’s not afraid of science. So that’s how it started, with environment being one of those areas that was percolating up in really central ways. This was before Kyoto protocol, when I got to be part of the science tech team, communication team who was developing that work for public audiences and then promulgating it. So yeah, accident and the clanging of a door shut.

[00:02:48.770] – Janice Summers

I love that. The clanging of a door shut. Now what do you do? Drop that 10, punt, figure it out. So you did a recent study or a recent interdisciplinary work that I want to talk about. The way you phrased it was really great. The scientist, the humanist all walk into this chicken coop, I’m rephrasing it wrong. Tell us, like a joke.

[00:03:29.160] – Marybeth Shea

All right. So again, there’s these accidental opportunities, but most of us who have this connection to technical communication know roughly or very specifically. We arrived out of the post-war engineering training and boom. Sort of like a second land grant. We were going to do plowshares from implements of war. We would keep the implements of war going but we need to help those engineers talk about their stuff.

[00:03:57.050] – Marybeth Shea

So the same thing happens with a lot of federal grants grafted onto the grant during the phases of applying is: and what is your science communication plan? And there was a new one I would sometimes get grafted on, but there was a new one that said get a science communicator early and have them be part of the design.

[00:04:17.950] – Janice Summers


[00:04:19.630] – Marybeth Shea

But then someone put me on to check a box and two of the other people on it said, we won’t let this just be a checkbox thing. We want you to be part of the design of the experiment. So I got to become part of a human dimension component of some pretty straight-up, let’s measure how much ammonia comes off– can we say a bad word?– poultry litter, which is chicken shit plus food crumbs, plus bedding, plus aerialized chicken particles. Yeah. Big source of ammonia pollution, and for us in the Chesapeake Bay lands on the water.

[00:04:59.910] – Marybeth Shea

But the human dimensions piece happened kind of by accident, but also the strong advocacy of 14 member team, four institutions, with Maryland being a primary one, two scientists said we are not going to let this just be checkbox. Come and help us design this. So I got to help design how to assess a human component of how do we reduce ammonia.

[00:05:27.610] – Janice Summers

Is that trend growing now in communication?

[00:05:33.190] – Marybeth Shea

Yes. However, it’s worth noting that there was a huge chilling effect during the Trump for specific years because a lot of this money came from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a few other allied places.

[00:05:47.690] – Janice Summers


[00:05:48.470] – Marybeth Shea

But even before that, there started to be a need for, you will tell us what the economic implications are of your environmental research! And anytime you say economics, you are really talking about human dimensions. So there’s been a science communication piece for a while, and then this human dimensions piece, that’s why I said the social scientist. So people would invite an economist in. And then what I love is that my being brought in was to design something about how can we communicate for specific possible shifts in human behavior.

[00:06:32.420] – Janice Summers

Because the goal is to find a solution, communicate that solution. And the solution often involves the humans at the other end.

[00:06:43.030] – Marybeth Shea

Oh, yeah, and at different nodes in a complex system. And we probably understand it from being in technical communication as opposed to say, I don’t know, entertainment communication. Things can look like a technical problem, but technical problems are people problems.

[00:07:07.090] – Janice Summers

Right. And people problems are multifaceted.

[00:07:10.690] – Marybeth Shea


[00:07:12.310] – Janice Summers

Right. Because it does dip into the motivation. But you also have to communicate a high amount of technical information to these people in order to tap into those emotional aspects.

[00:07:26.470] – Marybeth Shea

Right. And most of us, although the pandemic has sure shaken us all from our moorings about the role of rational information and decision making. And yet, despite a lot of other stuff going on and that Aristotle was fully aware of about the power of motion and trust in human decision making, both for individuals and in a polity, we still want rational. I still want deeply rational based decision-making.

[00:07:55.760] – Marybeth Shea

That often means assembling people who go deep down into their silos, like the people who count basically nitrogen molecules as it shifts between nitrates and nitrites and sulfates and sulfates– well, that’s a different species, but it tracks with sulfur compounds– on the air, water, and soil margins. It’s really complicated. And they were in this group. And so were people who understand, well, we can feed chickens a little differently.

[00:08:25.690] – Marybeth Shea

We can feed chickens a little differently so their fecal output will be a little less methane-emitting because there’s always that concern. But also, can we get the nitrogen in their excrement to drop out into a precipitate on the floor and not have it go into the air? So those scientists are there.

[00:08:45.380] – Marybeth Shea

Then we have farmers. And then I would say that one thing I was able to do, that technical communication has a deep, sustained, articulated commitment to, sometimes we call it the embodied expertise of people who do things. So poultry farmers know how to raise chickens. They don’t want them to die. They want them to be healthy enough. It’s still, a factory farm situation is harsh, but they have their incentives in the right place. And they don’t always in order to get the chickens to market because we all eat them. They know stuff.

[00:09:23.930] – Marybeth Shea

I think that in some ways, when we did our post-mortem, I had one of these really strict nitrogen scientists say to me, “I hadn’t really thought that I needed to know about some of the expertise that the farmers hold.” And they hold close to their vest. It’s bodied in their daily practice. They can walk into one of those poultry houses, and without even looking at a monitor, they can just sort of lookup, it’s like chicken-fu, they know something isn’t right. And then they start their exploration before they even say to you, “Oh, the nitrogen is off in this corner.” They’ve got that embodied cognition and practice expertise.

[00:10:05.050] – Janice Summers

But they might not even know. They don’t necessarily articulate because they’ve been doing this, some generationally. So it becomes like part of us.

[00:10:16.650] – Marybeth Shea

Yes, some generationally. Yeah, at a big land grant school, they will even say to you, well, I would talk about that with my cooperative extension agent. They want to know about how I view that part of chicken rearing. But they didn’t think that the scientists wanted to know. And actually, the scientists didn’t know how much they wanted to know about this.

[00:10:42.130] – Marybeth Shea

We also did something really interesting that we had to get special permission for. We decided to, with the permission of farmers, site some very complex data, real-time data sensing material sensors on their poultry farms. So we’re measuring it in real-time. And it took trust on the part of scientists to say, yeah, we’re going to accept data that comes from a citizen, a poultry farmer, and we’re going to trust that data.

[00:11:16.430] – Marybeth Shea

And I said, well, we can also meta tag it. We can say these parts of the data set came from these two poultry farms, but they also reached the point where they were thinking, I could trust having sensors be at a working poultry farm, as opposed to maybe just doing a lab experiment where you are doing a lot of controlling of confounding variables. So it was really interesting. And I would also say it’s huge to have poultry farmers that have trusted us to measure a pollutant coming off of their particular farm.

[00:11:51.000] – Janice Summers

That takes a lot of trust to get candidate. And how do you break through that barrier to get that relaxed nature? Because you want all of your data that you’re collecting and all the information to be accurate that you’re documenting.

[00:12:05.780] – Marybeth Shea

It’s pretty labor-intensive. And one of the things about technical communication, however you’re trained, is you find that you have to put on and quickly bring in knowledge and practices from a number of places. So ethnography from anthropology was really helpful, and there’s no substitute. You need to go and visit poultry farmers. And I went to chicken dinners, mostly in Methodist Church St. Paul’s.*** And there’s a fairly large Mennonite community on the Eastern shore, so I get some of the best food you can imagine.

[00:12:40.480] – Marybeth Shea

But I also had to show up, and I’ll just sort of show these to you. One of the things we did involve visualization of aspects of poultry farming on the Eastern shore and getting close to the water. We did a lot of this with these cards, so it was really visual, and I would hand out the cards and we would talk about them and do some sorting. And I guess what I want to say is, I know people make fun of it. And it’s a line from, oh, my God, early Saturday Night Live. It felt a little bit like nice white lady.

[00:13:21.470] – Marybeth Shea

Nice lady who grew up in Montana with relatives, with a dairy. It really helped that I could say something about it, but you had to really dial back your professor hat. You could have your teacher hat on, yeah, it was that.

[00:13:37.310] – Janice Summers

But trying to meld in, to relate– that relatability. That’s what you were able to tap into. And isn’t that one of the challenges? And one of the special things I think that makes technical communicators so very interesting is because they’re interested in everything. And there’s a reason for that, because you need to relate to so many different people at so many different levels. 

[00:14:06.780] – Marybeth Shea

And one of the things I would be doing is I was, because there’s a lot of driving, as Liz knows, there’s a lot of driving and there’s a drive across a really highly elevated bridge. And I would be meditating on all the things that we teach, particularly students or when we do professional training. Think about audience analysis.

[00:14:25.730] – Janice Summers


[00:14:26.470] – Liz Fraley

Know your audience.

[00:14:27.780] – Janice Summers

Know your audience. Yes.

[00:14:29.590] – Marybeth Shea

What’s going to work for your audience? And that we can construct audiences and we can study them. But user-centered design or usability testing focus groups, it’s really important to spend time with the audiences. So the audience analysis skills, really helpful. Completely helpful.

[00:14:54.290] – Janice Summers

Getting in the trenches with them so that you have a deeper understanding. It really does affect how you communicate, how you message things when you understand from their perspective. I think part of it too, is because human nature, we’re a user of a product or a service. We have adaptabilities that we develop, that we as end users don’t necessarily document or aren’t even aware of. You talked about the embodied expertise. Is that like you’re an expert in something because you’ve been journeying into it?

[00:15:29.830] – Marybeth Shea

There’s a notion of doing as opposed to maybe thinking. Some of it came, let’s see, Beverly Sauer (Bev Sauer)*** is a technical communicator who works on it a great deal. She had some amazing articles in the 90s where they would talk to miners in South Africa about safety, and people would assume, well there’s some language barriers, but she would be in these rooms and the miners would be doing this.

[00:15:59.970] – Marybeth Shea

In a room, not a mine, but talking about safety. And they would be pantomiming because as they were being asked about mining safety, what did the miners do mentally? They were in the mine and they were doing calculations like, well, when you look up above you and you see a subtle shift in moisture or there’s a hairline fracture there that wasn’t there the other day. Do you know what I’m saying?

[00:16:25.150] – Marybeth Shea

It was physical, and the pantomiming is what made her go look up. I think Merleau-Ponty is one of the first people in a very philosophical way, talked about embodied cognition. People don’t always like him, but I appreciate him: Malcolm Gladwell, when he did his book about do something 10,000 times, and he had notes on it like, do something 10,000 times really well with a mentor and a master around you. That gets at some of the embodied cognition. Like athletes, what do they know? Oh, my God, they know stuff in their bodies. 

[00:17:05.530] – Janice Summers


[00:17:09.570] – Marybeth Shea

We shifted our language, too, I became one of those translator people. And it’s a little bit like, what definition shall we use for our audience? And how will we cross-train one another so we know we’re talking about the same thing? So there’s this one technique that’s really neat that involves planting trees near and downwind and upwind. You do it in different ways because of the seasonal changes. You can capture a lot of air for nitrogen by sticking trees up, trees that can withstand high nitrogen. The nitrogen will fall to the ground. And nitrogen is a major input for plants.

[00:17:48.480] – Janice Summers

For plants. Yeah.

[00:17:50.310] – Marybeth Shea

So we would do these things called vegetated emissions buffers (VEB)*. And farmers have to know they work because they give up some cropland to put what looks to be the non-functional plant. It’s not corn and it’s not soybeans. And trust me, those poultry farmers are doing other things, too. And I remember turning to one of the scientists and going, well, let’s just stop calling them VEBs. Let’s call them hedgerows and shelterbelt.

[00:18:25.320] – Janice Summers

Shelterbelt, yes, things that make sense from a farmer’s perspective, they all know shelterbelts. You go anywhere in the Midwest and you can tell they know what shelterbelts are.

[00:18:32.940] – Marybeth Shea

Exactly. And there’s this amazing tradition and it’s talking about embodied cognition. Sometimes it’s called heritage farming. And it’s also part of when we do low impact farming or recovery restorative agriculture or getting certified for organic stuff, you find that you go back into the history of farming, but you also find that there’s living embodied knowledge, that’s sort of a hedgerow thing.

[00:19:01.290] – Marybeth Shea

Think about in England, the aerial shots of England, and a lot of our culture was UK transplant. Oh, my God. To a much more arid area. But look at how we shifted into shelterbelts. And we have to do wind breaks in much bigger ways than most Brits do. I think the Scottish people would tell you they have to do shelter belts for when. But to even just say that and having one nice scientist look at me dumbfounded and go, but VEB means vegetated emissions buffer.

[00:19:34.170] – Janice Summers

Makes perfect sense.

[00:19:35.520] – Marybeth Shea


[00:19:38.250] – Janice Summers

I get it.

[00:19:40.230] – Liz Fraley

Oh, my gosh.

[00:19:41.270] – Marybeth Shea

We’ll publish in the science and tech journals about this, and it will be one of our keywords. But when we’re out talking and then, of course, cooperative extension agents are the masters and the mistresses of this. We’re going to say shelterbelt. We’re going to say hedgerow.

[00:20:05.230] – Janice Summers

Yeah. There’s that competition between over-communicating things versus simplifying things. Right?

[00:20:14.830] – Marybeth Shea

Specialized language. And in respect to the disciplines, there’s a reason we have specialized languages. Like the difference between nitrite and nitrate, even though policymakers will sometimes say NOX– N-O-X, “X” meaning, I don’t care if it’s-

[00:20:34.230] – Janice Summers

Either one, right? Nitrate or nitrate. I don’t care.

[00:20:37.590] – Marybeth Shea

The nitrogen that’s reactive in the environment that can cause air pollution and water pollution, we care. So it’s called NOX. That can be how a policymaker would talk about nitrogen speciation in an aqueous soil perimeter. But we need both. And we also need, well, chicken shit leeches off into the water and you’re going to get an algal bloom by August, if you’re not lucky. Right? We’re all sort of talking about the same thing.

[00:21:11.290] – Janice Summers

Right. And all three are the same message. But they’re specialized to different audiences, spoken in a language that’s more comfortable for them.

[00:21:26.520] – Marybeth Shea

Right. And I think most people would be laughing and smiling about this because doing a lot of terms translation just becomes an automatic skill, and to help people see and move and also comfort people when the degree of specificity isn’t needed at that moment.

[00:21:46.550] – Marybeth Shea

But also to acknowledge that the degree of specificity matters. And trust me, I think there were 32 scientific publications that came out of this and some allied work. No one wrote NOX or SOX* or hedgerow. They wrote VEB, and they were able to talk about nitrate accumulation and nitrite accumulation and ambient ammonia as is necessary, right?

[00:22:13.715] – Janice Summers


[00:22:13.760] – Marybeth Shea

So it’s like saying there’s a time and a place on an occasion. Again, taking us back to so many of the tools of TC, especially since I was trained in TC at Maryland, and Liz knows about this. We’re very much a modern rhetoric place, old rhetoric for modern students like stasis theory and logos, pathos, ethos.

[00:22:36.020] – Marybeth Shea

So just think about the idea of Kairos, the occasion. So the words are going to be right for the occasion, and we can be more specific and we can be more general about things. It also meant that the farmers felt more as if they were participating and it’s risky for them. There’s even some political differences and talk about polarization and they’re afraid of being regulated. They’re deeply afraid of being regulated. And scientists are always a little surprised by that, really.

[00:23:15.400] – Marybeth Shea

I would say to the scientists, oh, my God, they’re letting us put a monitor right by their farm that showing how much ammonia is coming off of their chicken production. And the scientists go, yeah, I’m really glad we trust each other. And I go, yeah, but think about this.

[00:23:30.330] – Marybeth Shea

The more science develops models where we can monitor specificity, we ratchet down appropriately and rationally on either regulation or broader instruments like maybe regionalized cap and trade for nitrogen, which is a regulatory activity upon a business activity. And poultry farming is complicated. But I would say about three quarters of Eastern Shore poultry farmers right now, their average age is about 67, and they are in deeply contractual relationships with the big poultry companies that you can recognize from labels at the supermarket.

[00:24:11.810] – Marybeth Shea

They are sole proprietors and they worry and their margins are their margins. And thought of more regulation is hard on them, and at the same time, they experience something in their community. Again, TC is always making you microscope in to things, but also pulling out contextually. They live in communities that are often related by family ties and marriages and community ties and Church is huge there to people who farm the Bay for oysters and crabs.

[00:24:52.340] – Marybeth Shea

So they know that nitrogen management is really important. They want their neighbors to not be able to survive the farming of the Bay. So it’s interesting to see that they might want to do something to sustain some communal activity, especially in small towns where the margins are kind of scary. That’s a huge motivator for them too, if they can shift some of that nitrogen out of the air and away from the soil-water margin. We’re trying to keep it out of the water in the Bay in the East Coast. We’re trying to keep it out of the water. And this exports to people who live in the largest watershed in the country, which would be the Mississippi, because all that agriculture (AG) through the Midwest-

[00:25:46.790] – Janice Summers

Oh, yeah.

[00:25:47.900] – Marybeth Shea

It gets down to Louisiana.

[00:25:49.100] – Janice Summers

It all ends up in Mississippi, yeah.


And a lot of it is nitrogen. Some of this thinking applies, and– I’m talking about nitrogen. Ask me what you want to ask me, but clearly I became a nitrogen communicator!

[00:26:10.160] – Janice Summers

Well, that’s one of the interesting things, too, that happens with people who enter into tech com is oftentimes in the discipline that you’re in, you become quite an expert on a lot of aspects of it, and it becomes part of you because you have to be so deep into each side. You had a benefit of a very scientific background before you entered into technical communication. Right? It’s already kind of in your DNA.

[00:26:45.970] – Marybeth Shea

Again, it’s one of those happy accidents. And yet as someone who teaches, I would say the journalism model can be really helpful for our students and also training. You know, TC people, there’s a big teaching component to your life, whatever you’re doing. Health care people have a big teaching component to their life. Sometimes we just need to be reminded. And also we need to elevate that as a really important professional skill. And not just that’s over there in K to 16.

[00:27:16.090] – Marybeth Shea

But there are ways to within a community. And a lot of what we do in life now is team-based, teams within an institution or we have these allegiances across institutions. We need to know enough about something. We need to know when to defer to our colleagues who really are nitrogen experts. It’s a little bit like journalism. The best journalists know how to go in and lay it all out because there’s investigators there. There’s always a story, too. And here nitrogen is a big character in the story.

[00:27:55.370] – Janice Summers

It’s that investigative part, right?

[00:27:58.550] – Marybeth Shea


[00:27:59.630] – Janice Summers

At the job.

[00:28:00.820] – Marybeth Shea


[00:28:03.170] – Janice Summers

I think that’s what makes technical communication so interesting and so challenging just to nail down because it’s so many aspects of so many different things.

[00:28:13.520] – Marybeth Shea

And then we ended up doing the visualization piece, which was really, really important because one of our main audiences was to share a lot of knowledge with poultry farmers. And there’s a lot of complexity.

[00:28:32.660] – Marybeth Shea

So each of these little cards, and there were 25 cards, would capture some aspect of managing nitrogen, either direct actions or, how about this? And technical communicators are good at this, and scientists tend not to be because it’s not part of their training.

[00:28:53.050] – Marybeth Shea

If we’re thinking about human behavior, we have to think about subjectivity and values, about how we will manage our nitrogen, because there are values at play and trade-offs when something is not command-and-control regulated, or demanded or counted. So we’re trying to shift behavior in each farmer, and that usually means their values.

[00:29:19.150] – Marybeth Shea

So there was a card in one set that a scientist was actually a friend of mine. She chucked it out of the deck and we didn’t use it one day, and I’m looking for it. And she goes, you had something in there about managing ammonia as an expression of spiritual values? And I went, of course I did. Why do you think I’ve been spending time with chicken farmers in Methodist Church halls? They may manage a farm in part because of their role in cocreation and a specific stewardship that’s related to visions of Eden and Adam and Eve, and that God gives it for use but not trashing. And she went, “Oh, my God, oh, my God, I’m sorry.” And I went, we’ll just put it in the next card set.

[00:30:09.540] – Marybeth Shea

But it was really interesting to recognize, oh, I probably needed to alert some scientists. We’re going to do some subjectivity. We’re going to just note that farmers may want to think about their deepest spiritual values. It would help shift them about decision making. And the thing is that you can do that without necessarily saying, hey, everybody, stand up and tell me your deepest held spiritual values. That doesn’t really work. I promise you, that doesn’t really work.

[00:30:42.450] – Marybeth Shea

But I also thought that there was one farmer’s wife who came up to me and said, can we plant beautiful flowers on one side of the VEB, away from where the highest nitrogen and particles are coming out of the poultry house exhaust fan? And I said, I think so. They’d have to withstand high nitrogen environments. And she goes, okay. And she goes, “Why are we talking about withstanding high nitrogen environments?” And I said, I think you mean it to be, can an edge of this VEB be a gardening? Could you put in some annuals?

[00:31:17.730] – Marybeth Shea

And she goes, well, my kids will want to do pollinator-friendly species. And she goes, But I just want geraniums and begonias on the edge so that I can look at them in the evening. I had never thought about an aesthetic value to any of this. So then we put in a little card about that. And to be honest with you, it doesn’t help with a gigantic amount of nitrogen management.

[00:31:43.740] – Marybeth Shea

But if someone is sitting on the fence about how big they’re going to plow to put in their hedgerow, they’re technically designed hedgerow to capture nitrogen if they do two more feet and put in a perimeter. And I went back to USDA and had a long talk, and, oh, my God, that’s specialized knowledge deep down in the silos, this horticulture said, these are the six species. They’re tropical species, and begonias were one. They’re high nitrogen feeders. They want nitrogen. They’re available at yard stores.

[00:32:23.700] – Marybeth Shea

So we were able to have this list, and it became part of the subjective value about if you’re sitting on the fence on something and this is going to sound a little– I want to acknowledge the reality of it. The women and men who run these farms are very much partnered and also have division of labor. But those women know how to go in and pull out the ill chickens to take to a vet to find out what the disease is. They’ll go in and do that, too, of course, but they also have very stricter roles than I am used to. And the women didn’t really want to be approached as farming decision-makers. And I thought, but having a card about aesthetics that rose up from a woman going, can I put some flowers?

[00:33:14.610] – Janice Summers


[00:33:15.440] – Marybeth Shea

That was a way to look at the unacknowledged and complex role of women as decision-makers within this system. Yeah, it was humbling.

[00:33:27.690] – Janice Summers

Yeah. That is interesting because they would be the more subtle influencers in the background because even though they’re not the decision-makers, they’re influencers and decisions-makers.

[00:33:38.130] – Marybeth Shea

Right. And then I’ll tell you what other piece of information they were really interested in. I said as we were getting ready to develop our training sessions and here technical communicators know and will admit when they’re making an argument with evidence, scientists tend to say, here’s my evidence. It’s just really clear.

[00:33:58.660] – Janice Summers

Right. How could you not understand it? With all the data.

[00:34:03.980] – Marybeth Shea

I would say, an argument for these families to stay with us longer and pay attention a little bit more is to talk to them about the relationship of ambient particulate matter and ammonia, and ammonia and particulate matter do interact, and they make something that it doesn’t last very long, but on hot days it means worse for your lungs. It’s the complexity of air pollution, synergistic effects of chemicals that get together under hot conditions.

[00:34:39.210] – Marybeth Shea

It’s more a problem for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It’s more the adult version of diminished lung function, but also it can be associated with not only asthma attacks but increasing the incidence of asthma in a population. The women were incredibly interested in this, and several farmers were interested in it as a Occasional Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) thing for themselves and maybe their workers, which are sometimes their teenage children.

[00:35:09.870] – Marybeth Shea

But it was the women in the groups who would come up to us afterwards and say, tell me more, I want to know more about the public health effects. So I want to know more about the health effects. So I recommended at the end that we boost and have a section we brought in public health data. And one very nice scientist said, yeah, but we didn’t do that data. I go, other wonderful people did, and we can bring it in we can separate our research, your research, about the ambient ammonia measured during these three years, et cetera. But remember, this builds an argument and it builds a contextual case.

[00:35:49.350] – Marybeth Shea

And they know that. It’s just that the publication standards for scientists are so disciplinary. There are times that you can’t attend to that larger context. But this was a case where we had some differentiated communication products and we could. And I got to be in charge of that, which was really fun.

[00:36:14.130] – Janice Summers

Interesting, because you’re communicating out to the community so you could pull things in. But the science that they were collecting for submission into the scientific community, that, you didn’t have to include the other data from the other.

[00:36:29.610] – Marybeth Shea

I would help them talk about the significance of some of their findings. And they could see that poultry farmers and Eastern Shore policymakers, including some environmentalists, were really interested in the fact that we were studying all this nitrogen. And they could also see it wasn’t just because we were trying to protect the water quality. It was also that the French have a saying about you have to knit the stitches as they present themselves in the making of a garment, you think you’re going to go after nitrogen in the water, but that’s not all you’re going after. And if you want people to reduce the nitrogen in the water, you might want to get them on board about reducing it from their farms because they live on their farms and they don’t want to have increased risk to themselves or their children or grandchildren about asthma.

[00:37:27.360] – Marybeth Shea

So I don’t, by any means necessary. However, we’re going to lower that nitrogen and we can solve more than one problem at a time. We can look at a public health problem and an aesthetic problem and also economic viability, about chickens and about the recreation on the Eastern Shore. And how about oysters and crab, delicious.

[00:37:53.970] – Janice Summers

So sustaining environment for not just the chickens?

[00:37:58.010] – Marybeth Shea

Yeah, for human flourishing. Yes, human flourishing.

[00:38:04.830] – Janice Summers

Interesting. It’s interesting how so much stems from one thing. You think you’re working on one thing and then so much, it’s much more complex.

[00:38:20.230] – Marybeth Shea

Which again, is why I’m sort of sorry that I did technical communication. I feel like I have to apologize to everybody that I was doing technical communication with them on climate change when I was in my mid-20s back in the 80s, because I’m so much better now.

[00:38:36.430] – Marybeth Shea

And part of it is the syncretism of the different skills and doing it at a university where even if you don’t want to, you are in a place of inquiry. And when I was going back over the different technical communicators who have been here and Liz and Janice have heard a little bit of this, I’ve gone, oh, my God, there’s Bill Hart Davidson. Oh, my God, there’s*** [inaudible 00:38:59] .

[00:39:01.420] – Marybeth Shea

Oh, and I actually quoted him in my dissertation, Sam Draga about *Cruel Pies, inhuman data. So I just think I am so grateful for the pedagogy piece at a big land-grant institution that requires me to keep learning about my stuff. And yeah, we are such an eclectic place. TC? Oh, my God.

[00:39:30.010] – Liz Fraley


[00:39:30.610] – Marybeth Shea

It’s huge.

[00:39:31.920] – Liz Fraley

It’s everywhere.

[00:39:34.070] – Marybeth Shea


[00:39:39.210] – Liz Fraley

The thing that struck me most recently in the conversation is you’re talking about if science pub can attend a larger audience, but the training and public communication can’t. And it can reach those secondary audiences and in fact, should.

[00:39:57.630] – Marybeth Shea

And I would say that even more. The Pandemic is a really interesting example, and I hope that we will get some of this, all this open publishing. So you probably heard, well, we just had to put a pre-print up and keep going. So this pre-print idea made the scientists all nervous, but we had to go fast and find something.

[00:40:16.960] – Marybeth Shea

And science is built syncretically and pyramid-like and interdisciplinary. And it’s always true. And the USDA is increasingly requiring that they will either pay for in the grant and open access like, every fifth publication that comes out of this grant we will help you pay for open access, because scientists have to pony up a lot of money to make something open access. But this knowledge gets out there and people see it. And if you don’t have a public communication piece, sometimes what happens is people will misinterpret it.

[00:40:58.590] – Marybeth Shea

And also people will willfully take it and do really unethical communication stuff with it. People in climate change have seen that for years. The cherry picking of one little data set or how about this technical knowledge from science? Well, we transformed our data to be able to use ice core plus temperature records, plus whatever. They do have to arrange data. But they said transform. And then in a hearing someone will go, look at this. I pulled up their paper. They transformed their data. That’s unethical. They’re just trying to fund their climate science gig.

[00:41:40.290] – Marybeth Shea

We have to understand that. And I do think that hardwiring opportunities and duties and bringing in technical communicators into science starts to create that public conversation where we can get ahead of some of it. But we also have to train our audiences to accept some of the science.

[00:42:03.810] – Janice Summers

And I think that’s the key thing by having technical communicators involved early and that open access, technical communicators understand how it is to train people on technical information so that they can understand it.

[00:42:19.410] – Janice Summers

So that people can understand how science evolves, what science is, and fact versus fiction or manipulation. And I think the best way to do that is to have technical communicators involved from the very beginning. So hopefully we’re going to have some scientists watching this.

[00:42:40.530] – Marybeth Shea

When the link goes live, do you know how many scientists I’m going to send it to?

[00:42:46.650] – Janice Summers

Here’s the thing. And we’re starting to see in academia where engineering departments are required to learn communication. It’s becoming a requirement for them. So they’re not just focused on the technical aspects of their scientific endeavor. They’re taught that they need to learn a little bit about communication, not that they’re going to be tech comm people, but-

[00:43:11.670] – Liz Fraley

At least the value of it.


Yeah. So that they know how to work with the technical communicator or the fact that when you’re working with the technical communicator, they’re there to help you be better.

[00:43:23.290] – Marybeth Shea

I think that the fact that that grant said the technical communicator will be part of the design, that’s a game changer.

[00:43:30.850] – Janice Summers


[00:43:31.950] – Marybeth Shea

And that I wasn’t even aware that there had been some discussion about, well, we’ll just have to fix the document at the end. She’s really nice at documents at the end. But there were two scientists who went, no, I think this sounds good. She needs to be part of the design of some of these experiments.

[00:43:52.270] – Marybeth Shea

And I would say probably this really helped create conditions for those nitrogen monitoring devices. They’re called aerometers. They were attached above, it’s called an airshed. Where will it go? How high? That probably came in part because of having a technical communicator be part of the study design early on. And I said things like, well, while you guys are doing all that, I’m going to be going over the Eastern Shore and I’m going to be visiting. I’m going to go to the Fourier*** events, and I’m going to go to– and they kind of looked at me and it was like, okay, if you want to. And I went, oh, I do want to. But that was how you figured out who they are. And also like I said, the nice lady.

[00:44:42.010] – Janice Summers

It’s interesting, too, because you’re bringing up a really, I know we’re out of time, but I really wanted to bring this in. You have a unique background and unique experience, and not everybody shares that. But here’s the thing. As technical communicators, you can go out and meet with people in the community and attend meetings, and you can get to know the people at a different level. Right.

[00:45:06.540] – Marybeth Shea

***Yes, and I can assure you, no science needed.

[00:45:08.570] – Janice Summers

No science needed.

[00:45:09.690] – Marybeth Shea

To go to the Eastern Shore for 18 months to go to visit all these things.

[00:45:12.440] – Janice Summers


[00:45:12.640] – Marybeth Shea

It was really positive analysis, yeah.

[00:45:15.020] – Janice Summers

Right, and on the flip side of that, if you’re not a science person, it’s okay because you’re trained to ask questions and to seek answers.

[00:45:26.260] – Janice Summers

And I think that’s the main thing. So if you’re a technical communicator and you’re invited to participate in something, don’t say, no I don’t know that science. That’s okay. Be a technical communicator. You’re not there to be a scientist. You’re there to be a technical communicator, and they’re great at spotting things.

[00:45:49.990] – Liz Fraley

It’s kind of like the silos. Well, I know we’re out of time. It’s kind of like the silos. Those guys are deep, deep, deep into their science. We are deep, deep, deep into the communication part of it. And those silos aren’t going anywhere. They’re only continuing to fracture.

[00:46:05.470] – Janice Summers

So if you’re a scientist, specialized in a certain thing.

[00:46:08.500] – Liz Fraley

That’s what you should do.

[00:46:09.300] – Janice Summers

You need to be, right?

[00:46:10.470] – Liz Fraley

Yeah, absolutely.


You need to be. You can’t expect that silo to break.

[00:46:13.840] – Liz Fraley


[00:46:13.840] – Marybeth Shea


[00:46:16.250] – Janice Summers

You got to go dive in.

[00:46:17.280] – Liz Fraley

You need somebody who’s in the other silo to work with you.

[00:46:20.430] – Marybeth Shea

Well, maybe it’s a good thing to end on to say something like this: technical communication, it’s a thing.

[00:46:25.939] – Janice Summers

Yeah, it’s a thing!

[00:46:26.255] – Marybeth Shea

It’s a discipline, it’s a thing, it is.

[00:46:33.010] – Janice Summers

I prefer to think of it because silos, and I know that was a thing that a lot of people talked about before, and silos are important and they’re needed and they’re not going away. But I think technical communication is a boundless endeavor.

[00:46:44.920] – Marybeth Shea

It is.

[00:46:46.720] – Janice Summers

It is a boundless bridge-building endeavor and that’s what technical communication is about. Trying to fit.

[00:46:54.870] – Marybeth Shea

To see if it can help with a lot of handshakes.

[00:46:56.540] – Liz Fraley

Yes. Awesome.

[00:46:59.360] – Janice Summers

Oh, my gosh.

[00:47:00.140] – Liz Fraley

What a great conversation.

[00:47:03.380] – Janice Summers

Marybeth, I wish you could talk longer, we’ve gone way over time. Yeah, it has been so much fun. Who knew chicken coop could be so interesting.

[00:47:11.090] – Marybeth Shea

Chickens in the chicken coop. Thank you!

[00:47:15.450] – Liz Fraley

Awesome. Thank you.

[00:47:16.690] – Janice Summers

Bye, everybody.

[00:47:17.740] – Liz Fraley


In this episode

Marybeth Shea teaches advanced composition at the University of Maryland. These courses include professional and technical writing where she typically instructs scientists and engineers in science writing, writing about the environment, and special sections under design for data analysis and computer science students. She has also co-taught special courses on big data and visualization. Recently, Shea developed a gateway course for medical humanities with colleagues in history, languages and literatures, and philosophy. She also consults with scientists — particularly environmental science teams — about communicating their findings for policy.

What can an environmental humanist offer to specialized interdisciplinary environmental science for policy deliberation? Scientists use scientific methods; many humanists use stasis theory, a method used by scholars to work on the human dimensions of wicked problems, such as the environmentally destructive ammonia pollution from poultry production on the Delmarva Peninsula. The choices that poultry farmers make can be a large part of the solution to reducing the ammonia pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. But how do you convey the science and the choices in the most effective way? 

Human values and viewpoints are central to decision making and those are best understood with humanities and social science tools, like Q-Methodology (Q). Using Q, you can probe human subjectivity and gain a deeper insight into priorities and decision making of your audience. In this session, we’ll talk about how humanistic cartoons on cards helped make clear these farmer’s attitudes to themselves, to scientists, and others. Learn how to communicate effectively to the people who hold the power of change; how to craft information that helps them understand the science behind the results of their choices; and how changes can help solve environmental challenges while maintaining their priorities.


Marybeth Shea

Faculty Page: 

Teaching website (teaching undergirds all of this applied work!)

Some of Marybeth’s heroes:  Ruth de Fries, Ellen Silbergeld, Raul Pacheco Vega, Elinor Ostrom, Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor, Octavia Butler, Psyche Forson-Williams, Maryn McKenna, Bruce Sterling,  Susan Merrill Squier

Stasis Theory defined, paper by Dr. Keith Grant-Davie:

English studies people using tools of rhetoric, including stasis theory openly:

  • Scott Graham – rhetoric of pain
  • Sharon MacKenzie – stasis theory and range/land use in western US
  • Will Kurlinkus – rhetoric of nostalgia
  • Martin Camper – teasing out stasis steps in legal and political rhetoric
  • Allen Brizzee – applying stasis in business decision making
  • Katharine Northcutt – analyzing paleontology arguments about dinosaurs as birds

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