beginning of the semester round-up

My classes have finally stabilized in terms of the people, and all four of my main classes are really great.

I’m going to try to do brief reviews of the books I read for each class. We’ll see how long that lasts.

In Ole’s Science, Technology and Modernity class, the undergrads are really bright, and all of them seem enthusiastic about it. Sometimes undergrad discussions can be frustrating, but the first two have gone really well in there. And Ole requires little library assignments each week, which are kind of fun and actually (I’m ashamed to say) useful for me; I’m definitely less experienced with different kinds of library sources than I should be. We read The Railway Journey this week, which I thought was really great.

Fabrication and Uses of Knowledge also looks to be very stimulating; it has one other grad student (a sociologist from Denmark) and (I think) three undergrads, all of whom seem to be able to contribute on a high enough level for the class to really get deep into the literature we’ll be reading. It seemed at first like the undergrads would be a problem, as the class divided into two sides about the definitions we were trying to work out for “Knowledge” and “Information,” but the discussion actually went somewhere and everyone left with a much better idea of those concepts than we started with. (Unfortunately, the room the class meets in is loud and stiflingly hot, but that should change once winter arrives and we can shut the windows without suffocating.)

As for Narrative Histories, the discussions are very enjoyable. The other garden-variety history courses I took last year were somewhat stressful for me, since every discussion really engaged with history beyond the book of the week. It was hard for me to contribute on the same level as the garden-variety historians and Americanists without knowing more history. But this class is really about ways of writing history, so my lack of historical knowledge doesn’t hold me back. However, so far I haven’t been taken with either of the readings. I really like the concept of narrative history, so the reading have been a let-down (but great discussion fodder). We read Mirror in the Shrine last week and Dead Certainties this week, and for both books I simply couldn’t bring myself to care much about the stories being told (although most of the latter is moderately entertaining).

John’s Intro to the History of Medicine and Public Health will be enjoyable (the first week’s discussion went just fine), but I’m also afraid it will retread a lot of the ground we covered last year in his Grounding of Modern Medicine. The books are mostly different, covering a broader spectrum of medical history, but it will still focus more on “craft issues” of how to write (and more often how not to write) books on the history of medicine than on the actual content of the history of medicine. The presence of several non-historians will hopeful help to mitigate that, but even if it doesn’t the books will be good and the discussions will still be of some value to me despite some repetition. The first book we read was Medicine Before Science. Well, they read it; I read only a third, but I’m auditing so I don’t feel bad. But I would like to finish it some time. The last third was about the various and sundry philosophical systems of medicine that arose as the Latin tradition splintered; everyone else hated that part but it seemed from their descriptions to be the most interesting to me.

Meanwhile, I’m considering going to an alternate colloquia series for a few times this semester; every talk but one for HSHM will be history of medicine (and that will be about Kinsey, too social science for my tastes generally, but also provocative enough to make it worthwhile). Meeting at the same time is a history seminar series on “Transitions to Modernity,” which they scheduled also on Mondays at 4:30. It’s staggered oddly, so some of them conflict with Holmes Workshop talks and some with HSHM colloquia; I’m less inclined to skip workshops out of respect for my immediate colleagues. It’s frustrating after last year’s colloquium line-up, which included some really prominent historians of science (and some less prominent ones who gave really great talks).

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