Why should we care…? III. Maybe we shouldn’t
Posted by Nathaniel Comfort on 04/11 at 10:21 AM
I care deeply about the history of science. But maybe I don’t care about the History of Science.
This past weekend, some of my friends and colleagues convened in New Haven for the annual Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology, a lo-fi, old-school, itinerant conference for grad students to present their work to a friendly, critical audience. JAS-Bio started in 1965 and I think has only missed one year since then, even though no one knows where it’s going to be next year until the very end of this year’s meeting, when someone traditionally stands up and says, “So...I was thinking we could do this at my place next year.” My own advisor was among the founders; I helped organize it as a grad student; and now my own students present their first papers there. It’s my favorite professional meeting.
At the end of the meeting, Bill Summers of Yale held an interview-style discussion with three faculty members—Janet Browne of Harvard, Angela Creager of Princeton, and Susan Lindee of Penn—about some issues in the profession. Summers is trained as a molecular biologist, although he has been writing and teaching on historical subjects for many years. He took an outsider’s stance, asking his panelists—“real historians,” in his self-deprecating phrase—about the state of the field.
He asked the panel to discuss the utility of the history of science for scientists; the difference, if any, between the history of science and related fields such as Science and Technology Studies (STS), the history of medicine, and sociology and anthropology of science; and whether historians of science had anything to say any more to philosophers of science. The discussion then ranged to popularization of our work and the relevance of what we do to science policy and ethics. A number of remarks came out about how we train students so that they can compete for scarce faculty jobs, most of which are in straight history departments. In short, the discussion centered on drawing boundaries around our field. Distinguishing what we do from other people who study the social implications and context of science, parsing it relative to general history, and how to brand oneself within the academic marketplace.
In the back of many people’s minds was the recent debate between Lorraine Daston in Critical Inquiry and Peter Dear and Sheila Jasanoff in Isis , and on a conference at Harvard last week on the “next 20 years” of STS. (see also commentaries by Darin Hayton, Will Thomas and Henry Cowles on the debate)
At the end, someone handed Dan Kevles the microphone and asked him to comment on writing serious history for wide audiences. Does it mean “dumbing down” your work or sacrificing scholarly standards? How should one “position” one’s book so that it earns the respect of other scholars and gets noticed in the popular press? Kevles said not to worry about that. “Follow your passion,” he said. “Follow your own drummer.” If you want to write for a wide audience, there are ways to do that; if you want to reach a narrow but knowledgeable audience of peers, then do that. He is right. There’s no point in doing this if you aren’t passionate about it. Become too calculated, and you’re sunk.
I want to add that what counts as the History of Science could not matter less. I currently work at the interface of the history of science and the history of medicine. I find the relations between science and medicine fascinating and rich with implications for better understanding our society and even human nature. The relations between historians of science and historians of medicine, however, are petty, chauvinistic, and completely uninteresting. Ditto our relation to philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists of science. Double ditto for the difference between “HPS” (History and Philosophy of Science, à la Cambridge) and “STS” (Science and Technology Studies, à la Cornell).
I can’t resist the old chestnut about the reason that academic debates are so vehement is that the stakes are so small. This is a tiny field, people! We already have far less impact on wider discourse than our subject matter deserves. Splintering into these absurd factions undermines the enterprise and hastens our irrelevance. For students, positioning yourself as an STSer vs. a historian of science is a colossal waste of time. Better to find a project you love and hopefully one that matters to more than half a dozen other people. Pursue it using whatever scholarly tools come to hand—those of history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology,...journalism, fiction, meditation,...motorcycle repair, saponification, or philately. Then, when it’s time to look for jobs, learn how to pitch it to different audiences. Is there a gender angle? A racial dimension? Would a medical school be interested in it? Or maybe a group of Classicists?
Envoi: The discipline doesn’t matter. The profession is secondary. Break down the barriers of your research and writing. Learn to make connections with others as broadly and imaginatively as possible. Be savvy, eclectic, and passionate. Do it for the love.