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Monday, April 11, 2011

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.

Tags: academia, historiography, history and philosophy of science, journalism, professionalism, science studies, sts

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Comment posted by beckyfh on 04/12 at 02:53 PM

You say the discipline doesn’t matter, but of course it does, not least for individuals trying to make careers by publishing in reputable journals and getting jobs in existing departments. However, I was initially attracted to history of science just because it, more than many other disciplines, takes on ideas, approaches and people from a range of backgrounds. I don’t think this has gone away - long may it continue.

I am sure the kind of disputes you refer to exist but I have not found them to be particularly significant (maybe it is different in the US and UK, or within different departments?). I am more interested in what connects these various approaches, and why it is important. I, of course, find historical/philosophical/sociological/anthropological approaches more satisfactory than the kind of history of science written by those with no real connection with the humanities or social sciences. For me, this approach, broadly defined, is what counts as History of Science, rather than some facts, stories or details about science in the past.

Comment posted by Nathaniel Comfort on 04/12 at 08:54 PM

Thanks for these thoughtful comments. We’re in agreement on essentials here, and I wish everyone in the field were at least as eclectic as you. Most of what I’m criticizing is bickering *within* the groups you refreshingly link with slashes. But in the interest of stimulating reflection, let me play devil’s advocate:

Why “of course” does the discipline matter? Why is it better for one’s career or for the field as a whole to label, groom, and identify oneself for and with one particular faction, with its program and its journal?

I suggested instead picking a project you love and then tailoring your pitch to different programs and journals as needed. In my experience, it’s not been that hard to “pass” as a member of a different scholarly ethnic group when I’ve wanted to. You have to learn the key authors to cite and some vocabulary, but if the ideas are not specific to a discipline, it’s not that hard to tweak them for different specialties.

I maintain that one’s job prospects would be better, and the field would be stronger, if scholars focused on developing an original vision and on adapting it to different specialties as needed, rather than the current approach of grooming oneself and one’s work as this or that flavor of the month.

Comment posted by geneticobserver on 04/12 at 10:10 PM

Well, jeez, somebody better do this history of science/medicine/technology and intersection with society stuff and then do your best to pitch it to clinicians like me. Otherwise, clinicians - and “pure” scientists - will go around thinking that the history of science/medicine is simply the story of how everything scientists and clinicians used to know is all wrong, but what we now know and teach and practice is “correct.” Oh, sure, clinicians like to think, there was all those egregious errors of the past like eugenics and Lysenko and all that, but, hey, we are morally superior now, and we learned from all those mistaken theories and ethical lapses.

For me, reading about the history of genetics and medicine has helped me become a better genetic counselor for my patients and broadened my understanding and made me more critical (in a good way) of my profession’s knowledge base and ethical underpinnings.

You historians have a lot to tell and teach us clinicians. But you better be passionate about it, and don’t bother confining yourself to a single abstract and abstruse theoretical school, or else I am not going to listen to you. Of course you are welcome to talk to each other in the obscure dialects of Academic Arcania; every profession has it’s own lingo. But you also have to talk to a wider audience because, believe it or not, history matters.

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