Category Archives: historians

On the Internet, anyone can be a historian

The Washington Post has a flattering profile of a young Wikipedian, Adam Lewis, who worked on the article for Washington, D.C. The punchline comes a few paragraphs in:

Lewis joined thousands of other amateurs toiling in obscurity on Wikipedia, where facts are more important than the star historians who tend to dominate the popular view of history. On Wikipedia, anyone can be a historian.

I think this is suspect in a couple of ways (do “star historians” really dominate the popular view of history? what does “historian” mean in the Wikipedia context, where the policy is “no original research“?) but the spirit of the remark is right on, and relevant beyond just Wikipedia.

The history profession hasn’t yet been much affected by the “pro-am revolution“, but it’s increasingly possible for amateur historians to do original work with professional quality (even if that work is unlikely to much resemble academic history writing).  Some academic fields–astronomy is the most dramatic example–have already started benefiting  greatly from the contributions of amateurs.  But history seems slow on the uptake, with frustratingly little appetite for collaborative projects  and little interest in taking the work of amateur historians seriously (the exciting projects of George Mason’s  Center for History and New Media notwithstanding).

Will that change dramatically?  Will a pro-am revolution come to the history profession?  The case of history of science may be instructive here.  History of science has actually had a vibrant “pro-am” community (of scientists who write science history) since well before the Internet made relevant sources and publishing venues easily accessible to other interested groups of amateur historians.  Nevertheless, historians of science have not drawn closer to pro-am scientist-historians in recent decades–just the opposite, they’ve withdrawn from scientist-historians and often dismiss their work as hopelessly naive or self-interested.  If history of science is any guide, I fear that history as a whole may view the coming rise of “pro-am” history as more of a threat than an opportunity.

[cross-posted at Cliopatria]

What are historians good for? Part II

In my first post to Revise and Dissent, I lamented that historians don’t have good answers to the question: “Why does your work matter to anyone who is not an historian?” I heard two very engaging talks over the last 8 days, from two historians of science and medicine with very different takes on the issue.

Last week, Alice Dreger gave probably the most provocative colloquium talk I’ve heard at Yale. Dreger is an intersex rights activist and “medical humanist” who has worked to change the barbaric practices of genital surgery for children with disorders of sex development (or whatever you want to call the conditions; terminology is a charged issue here), often without even informing the parents. She also became involved in recent controversies over transsexualism and the book The Man Who Would Be Queen, and she’s written social/medical histories of hermaphrodites and “unusual anatomies”.

In a great talk that simultaneously made her seem brazenly self-promoting and bracingly altruistic, Dreger explained how she has been doing what she calls “onion-peeling”: private histories about individuals (shared only with the subject) that place people’s lives, or specific traumatic events in their lives, into historical context. She described how powerful these short (4-6 pages, usually) self-contained histories were to their subjects. For many, reading their own history in someone else’s words was a cathartic experience that let them understand and accept their pasts (e.g., why a doctor had performed an infant clitoridectomy, and why their family had never discussed the issue during childhood).

These personal histories are nearly useless for doing academic history, since they are performed on the explicit condition of privacy and the subject-driven interview-and-revision procedure introduces grave reliability problems by normal oral history standards. As Dreger explained it, the main benefit of doing these “onion-peelings” is the personal satisfaction of seeing your work have a direct and substantial positive impact on someone’s life. She hinted that she sees normal history as a powerful force for social good as well, but with effects that are harder to see (and so harder to feel good about). The end-game of the talk was that Dreger is considering starting a non-profit to help other historians do “onion-peeling” (client-centered histories), and maybe even provide funding for them to do so.

Topics of discussion after the presentation included: the line between onion-peel history and psychoanalysis; legal and emotional liability; the permissibility of glossing over historical ambiguity for the benefit of an audience of one; and how such pro bono work could fit into the expectations of modern academia. I, for one, find the idea of client-centered histories compelling, but not something I would actually consider doing. It’s a better answer to the blog title question than nothing, but I think there are more efficient (though maybe not as personally rewarding) ways for historians to serve the public, if they are actually willing to do something outside the professional norms.

Today, William Newman gave a talk on why Newton (and many other smart people in the 17th and 18th centuries) practiced alchemy, and how there was a smooth transition from alchemy to chymistry to chemistry. Even Lavoisier, says Newman, was doing basically the same kinds of things Newton had been doing a century before–just with more sophisticated and precise apparatus (and a clever theory of combustion). Despite substantial treatments of Newton’s alchemy by earlier historians such as Richard Westfall, Newman thinks that most work on the Scientific Revolution is badly flawed because early historians of alchemy didn’t understand the technical aspects of alchemy (and so overemphasized the metaphorical and occult aspects).

Newman and others have been working out what Newton was actually doing in his workshop. (He described a Newton not so different from the character in The Baroque Cycle.) Newman did a live alchemy demonstration, showing how certain minerals would show signs of life (substances that form fast-growing crystals when put in a chemical solution, e.g., a “silica garden“), and how nitric acid could be (and was) used supposedly to transmute silver into gold (by depletion gilding). Newman explained why transmutation was part of the agenda of the legitimate, “scientific” alchemists like Newton: in the 17th century there was no NSF; the promise of transmutation was a sort of “grant application” of sorts, which he compared to modern justifications for research funding that promise a cure for cancer (which the young field of molecular biology used to great effect in the 1950s and ever since, but with a cure still seeming as far off as ever.) Transmutation wasn’t inconceivable, but the alchemists had more practical, immediate goals for their work and would use the lure of unlimited alchemical wealth for their patrons to their own ends.

With NSF funding, Newman is building a complete online collection of Newton’s alchemy manuscripts (which are scattered about the globe, since many were auctioned off in the early 20th century): The Chymistry of Isaac Newton. The site has seen considerable popular interest; there is a lot of enthusiasm about Newton among non-historians. But when I asked Newman “Why does your work matter to anyone who is not an historian?”, he stumbled. (This after his eloquent, obviously well-practiced explanation of why it matters to other historians of science). Answering that question, he said, is like “tilting at windmills”; historical myths like Columbus discovering that the Earth is round persist, even though historians have known them to be false for several generations. The misinformed “army of middle-school teachers” create a closed loop of misinformation that propagates from generation to generation, a seemingly insoluble problem.

Myths about alchemy (and the flat earth, and the conflict between science and religion, and Ptolemaic astronomy, and many others) are doubly pernicious and recalcitrant because they serve as a purpose, as foil for their modern counterparts. Newman is pessimistic that any significant changes in public (mis)perceptions of the history of science are possible, since these myths acquire their own momentum.

I think Wikipedia is changing that, and changing the whole way the public uses and understands history–e.g., see Flat Earth and Flat Earth mythology–but that’s a topic for another post (and for the article for the History of Science Society Newsletter that I’m working on). If you got this far, thanks, and sorry for the blogorrhoea.

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent]

Notability, again

Two months ago, I posted about the concept of Notability on Wikipedia and discussions about reforming that guideline. I concluded: “It’s heartening to see that Wikipedia is not so resistant to change that it cannot deal with its scaling problems, though it remains to be seen how effective the response will be.” I’m sorely disappointed in how that turned out: essentially, inertia prevails

Historian and intrepid educational technologist Mills Kelly has a great post with yet another outside view expressing bafflement over the insanity that is notability. (Of the articles written by students in his Western Civ class, only one was deleted as non-notable, though several were merged or redirected, and even the deleted one was primarily a case of unverifiable original research.) Mills discusses a Jimmy Wales interview by Bruce Cole, chairman of the NEH, in the most recent issue of Humanities, which sounds interesting but is not yet available online (damn you, old-fashioned physical publishing!)

Everyone has their own idea of what the “the problem with Wikipedia” is (the canonical answer is found here). The most common “problem with Wikipedia” is that anyone can edit, but most Wikipedians regard this as a feature, not a bug. David A. Russell has a nice old post (which came up on my radar because of real bugs in the open wiki blog planet aggregator) on the general increase in convoluted processes and meta-content in Wikipedia; “process wonkery” is common villain for Wikipedians who can still remember when things were much simpler (well before I started editing).

To me, notability is the only issue that seems like a potentially project-breaking problem (aside from legal issues). It’s the only thing I could imagine a sizable portion of the community forking over (though things are far from that point right now).

UPDATE: Bruce Cole’s interview of Jimmy Wales is now online.

More scholars calling for Wikipedia involvement

After Roy Rosenzweig’s June 2006 article on Wikipedia in The Journal of American History, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past“, I predicted a large-scale change in the way scholars—humanists in particular—view Wikipedia. Things started slowly; Marshall Poe’s September article in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Hive” was the next major piece, and other interesting viewpoints continued to trickle in until the Middlebury College ban.

But lately, calls for involvement and reports of classroom success have been coming in rapidly. Recommended reading:

I’m working on my own piece for historians of science, and I’m trying to kick the inflammatory rhetoric up a notch. I probably need to come up with a catchy title, though. Unfortunately, garden-variety historians and English professors have already melted the obvious Dr. Strangelove snowclone. (What’s up with that? That’s history of science territory!) Maybe I could go with the other Strangelove snowclone: “We must not allow a Wikipedia gap!”

By the way, any suggests for improving the above article would be greatly appreciated; I’ll be submitting it soon.

Josh Greenberg, Zotero, and Scholarship 2.0 (!! Beta! Zap! Pow!)

Today, my department’s Holmes Workshop speaker was Josh Greenberg (aka, Epistemographer): an historian/STSer/hacker, formerly of the Center for History and New Media, now the “Director of Digital Strategy and Scholarship” (how rad a title is that?) at the New York Public Library.

I’ve been following the CHnM for a while now, and I had read about their flagship project Zotero, but I never realized what a revolutionary vision they have for this thing. Zotero is a Firefox plugin that does citations. It was initially conceived as an open source replacement EndNote (the only selling point for which, from what I hear, is that it’s not quite as bad as Word for footnotes).

In his introduction, Josh had an insightful comparison of “Finding vs. Searching”, basically the difference between an organized hierarchy of information (e.g., early Yahoo!, library stacks, and bibliographies), in which serendipitously finding things is the great benefit, and using the ubiquitous search boxes of the modern internet (e.g., Google, online library catalogs), with which you are searching for finite results in an undifferentiated database where anything outside the search parameters is simply invisible. (By random coincidence, he had randomly included this picture by me as an icon of the finding mode; hooray for unattributed syndication!).

Part of the goal of Zotero is to harness the best of both the searching and finding modes by adding a Web 2.0 social element to the citation program. This summer, the developers will be launching a Zotero server that will archive a user’s citation database so that it can be accessed from anywhere and retained in case of hardware failure. The upshot is that, unless the user opts out, the citation database will be used (sans private information, if desired) to create a sort of del.icio.us for scholarly material. Zotero will be useful enough to be used on its own, with the aggregate social aspect as icing that brings the potential for scholarly collaboration and recommendation to a new level. You can find other bibliographies similar to yours to see what like-minded scholars are reading that you aren’t, and you might be able to find other scholars you didn’t know about with similar research interests. In future versions, you’ll be able to share your marginalia, your original sources (interviews, photographs from archives, etc.), etc.

What makes Zotero cool today is the ability to automatically pull citation data from a large and ever-growing list of online sources. So you do a search on your local library catalog, and with one click you import the metadata for that source to your library. Then, when you want to cite that source, you have a wide range of output options (MLA, Chicago Style, EndNote, etc.). What sold me is that it even does export in Wikipedia citation template syntax. I never use the cite templates, because it’s usually easier to just type in the references how I want them. But with Zotero, I’m going to start using them. For the Wikipedians reading this, I recommend trying it out (make sure you get Beta 4, from the Zotero website; the one straight from Firefox is out of date and doesn’t have the Wikipedia support). It’s under heavy development and improving rapidly, but it’s already a very helpful thing.

Ed Larson comes to town

Edward J. Larson was the guest for my department’s colloquium yesterday. It was neat to get a chance to talk with him during the graduate student coffee beforehand, where I was the host (even if it was hard to get a word in edgewise). Larson is an interesting character for a number of reasons. His research interests are admirably sprawling; he’s a legal scholar as well of as a historian of science, and religion, and politics, and law. He was Frank Herbert‘s lawyer; as he told it, it was his job to call up Frank and tell him when he’d been at his foreign residence too long and had to get back home to avoid extra taxes. He studied history at Wisconsin under Ron Numbers, and he shares an inordinate number of interests with my advisor Dan Kevles (including eugenics, law, the Galapagos, Antarctica).

Like Numbers (and unlike the vast majority of scientists and philosophers), Larson takes an extremely balanced approach to his work on creationism and its permutations (see his two books, Trial and Error and Summer for the Gods). And in lot of ways, he’s in a perfect position to do something powerful and significant for the public discourse over Intelligent Design. He has a track record with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Scopes Trial book, which is well regarded by creationists, anti-creationists, and historians of science (no mean feat). By odd coincidence, Larson was a fellow of the Discovery Institute, doing unpaid consulting on their Cascadia Project (which is funded mostly by the Gates Foundation, even now). He left when they got into ID, but obviously his connection there just adds to his credibility on the topic. Larson was at University of Georgia for a number of years, but recently moved to Pepperdine University, where he still does both law and history. Pepperdine is a Church of Christ school (coincidently, the non-denomination both Matt Gunterman and I grew up in); Larson was raised a Lutheran (I think of the ALC variety, now part of the ELCA ), though I’m not sure how religious he is now.

Anyhow, the point of all this is that a book on ID by Larson would demand respect from a lot of corners. When I asked him why he hadn’t done more with it (his latest projects are on the election of 1800 and Antarctic exploration), he got defensive. On the one hand, he insisted he had in fact written a lot on ID (articles in an assortment of popular venues; the updated version of Trial and Error; public lectures like the one he’s giving this afternoon; his appearance last year on The Daily Show). On the other hand, he explained, Intelligent Design is extremely hard to pin down. Each of the main figures at the Discovery Institute has a different take on what exactly ID entails, and each is defending a different set of metaphysical doctrines (obviously, even if not explicitly). To further complicate things, there’s the tricky relationship between “Intelligent Design” and “intelligent design”, the utterly blurred continuum from Phillip Johnson to William Dembski to Michael Behe to Mike Gene to Francis Collins to Ken Miller. So Larson said that Intelligent Design isn’t a discrete historical topic, and that this kind of thing (cultural/intellectual history?) is not what he does. (He has written a general history of evolution, a concept at least as historically amorphic and flexible as ID, but I digress.) His understanding of the complexity of the issue (as opposed to the polemics that currently pass as scholarly analysis, which tend to have a monolithic view of ID) is exactly why he should write the book on it. I guess the real issue is that he doesn’t think ID is a significant issue in the long term, which I think is (for better or worse) may not be the case.

On a related note, Horganism has a pair of posts (part 1, part 2) about an interview with Francis Collins that are worth looking at.

HSS meeting in Vancouver, open journals, Wikipedia evangelism

Last weekend was the History of Science Society meeting in Vancouver, BC. Despite growing up in Seattle, I had never been to Canada before.

I gave my first scholarly paper (which I had tried out a week before at the department’s Holmes Workshop): “Natural Philosophy Images: Pedagogy and Popular Science in America”. I was in a panel with two other very good talks on physics education-related texts–one on 20th century Canadian high school textbooks, which fit well with mine on 19th century American textbooks, and one on children’s biographies of Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. I’m really pleased with how it went; I got some good questions, and I had at least reasonable responses to all of them, as my Yale colleagues had prepared me well. Turnout was pretty good, really good for a panel of two early graduate students (myself and Michelle D. Hoffman of U. of Toronto), one guy not yet in graduate school (Trevor J. Owens, majored in history of science at Wisconsin), and one junior professor talking on a topic only marginally related to the rest (Steve Sturdy, a lecturer at University of Edinburgh who does history of medicine). I was really excited because David Kaiser was in the audience, but he left after the first two talks (i.e., right before mine).

One of the great things was talking with Adam Shapiro; his dissertation project, on the textbook industry and the Scopes Trial, is freaking awesome (and he has the kind of cultivated idiosyncrasy of dress and manner that I can appreciate).

As is typical at conferences, much of my best-spent time was with people from New Haven. I didn’t spend as much time meeting new people as I have at previous conferences, but no regrets. I did stay up drinking late into the night (along with Brendan) with the marvelous Gar Allen, which was great fun. And I met John Rudolph. And, in one of the great ego-inflating moments of my entire life, I was recognized by a stranger as… the writer of this blog. But beyond that, I mostly stuck with people I already knew.

John Rudolph invited me to work up my textbook research into something publishable, to submit for an upcoming special science studies issue of Science Education. Assuming I can find the time to do that (what with qualifiers hanging over my head) and that I could make it good enough to get accepted, it’s time to decide how seriously I want to take my free-knowledge ideals, since they conflict with my goal of actually being able to get a history job someday. I would like to only publish in open content journals… ideally, ones that support copyleft, but that’s not likely to happen any time soon. There aren’t really even any open content history of science journals (the closest things are History of Intellectual Culture and Science, Technology & Innovation Studies) or general American history journals (the closest thing is American Diplomacy). What needs to happen is for a broad flagship journal (like Isis or JAH) to totally retool for open content: increase the number of published articles drastically, invite contributions from a wider range, and start poaching from all the competitor journals. If it was done right, with a plan for expanding the editorial positions to keep pace with submissions and maintain quality, it could force the whole journal ecosystem to switch to open content. Before there was search, it made sense to have highly specialized journals. But at this point, it would make far more sense to get rid of the vast majority of paper publications and make open content online publication the standard.

Another variation on that theme… Despite the marked lack of enthusiasm for Wikipedia among professional science studiers in listservs (like the HOPOS and H-SCI-MED-TECH lists where I pump the History of Science Collaborations of the Month and get ignored), scholars express a fair amount of enthusiasm or at least convincibility when I talk to them in person about Wikipedia. The most effective line of argument (sadly) is not the “contribute to society” one, but the one about how creating high-quality free content expands the market for our work; what science studiers do has the potential to be popular, as far as scholarship goes, but not many people know how compelling our stories are. Even down to an individual level, it will probably pay off in career-prospect terms a few years down the road to have good Wikipedia articles about your area of expertise; it will whet people’s appetites for more, and give people (including the scholars who might hire you) an entry point into your particular esoteric specialty.

The Patahistory Manifesto is here

Dave Davisson of Patahistory (and the History New Network’s Revise and Dissent group blog) has finally put up his Patahistory Manifesto. All in all it’s a good fun romp, but it’s a little to esoteric for me (as I’m sure my own manifesto is for most people).

Some bits and pieces I liked:

…Syllabi and textbook intros are littered with historian’s hopes that their writing and teaching will somehow transform the learning of history into something fun! They then proceed to write and talk about war, disease, starvation and oppression. Only perverse and idiosyncratic minds (the current state of the historian) want to learn more about this miserable past. Where are the jokes? The songs? The dancing? Where is the can-do spirit of enthusiasm? Must every optimism be overshadowed by the evil humanity commits? Isn’t play also part of the human condition?…

…Historians simultaneously disdain popular histories and yearn for popular success. Patahistory is the reverse. It disdains success and yearns for popular histories….

…Patahistorians are deliberately aware of creating the future. Students look to historians for their cultural metanarrative. They accept or reject current events based on the history they are taught. Creativity and imagination are primary tools of the Patahistorian. The Patahistorian of today helps create the metahistory of tomorrow….

But I think there is some tension between Dave’s patahistorical vision in the first two quotes and the third one. I whole-heartedly endorse song-and-dance, jokes and enthusiasm, and the goal of creating popular histories. But the manifesto suggests that the way to do that is to embrace the historical topics that consumers want. History of pleasant things, genealogical history… he fails to mention the overwhelming popularity of (and scholarly disdain for) military history. These may be cultural dead ends.

If we patahistorians (and here I’ll jump on board) are going to take our roles as creators of the future and authors of the cultural metanarrative seriously, we shouldn’t be turning to the subjects and issues of interest to the history consumer… we should be turning the interests of the consumer to the subjects and issues that can help us move forward culturally. The current range of info- that our society derives -tainment from is one of the parts of modern culture we should be trying to overwrite. Instead of turning history toward the established ruts that happen to be popular, we need to create new genres, new mediums, content that is better than docudramas, family histories, and war films.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t just try to replace current types of popular history, we should aim to take over/replace the modern sitcom, TV drama, feature film, pop song. We want a culture that fundamentally, metaphysically values history and reality (including, as the patahistory manifesto rightly celebrates, future history and potential reality) at every level, from education to entertainment.

How many communists does it take to change a light bulb?

None. The light bulb contains the seeds of its own revolution.

This was from Julia, at the new HSHM admits’ dinner. Unfortunately there aren’t any historian lightbulb jokes worth telling. But, as is the wont of historians, I’ll share some anyway.

Ahem…
How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?

1.) Only one, but to tell anyone else about it you need an entire department: the historian of science to describe the development of electricity; the economic historian to describe the rise of power companies and disposable lightbulbs; the environmental historian to talk about the relationship between replacement bulbs and landfill issues; the political historian to describe the decision-making process in lightbulb replacement; and the social historian to argue about whether more lightbulbs are replaced by women or by men. Graduate students are working on the incandescant-fluorescent issue, but no publications yet.

2.) (with trembling and fear) “Change???!!!”

Julia’s joke comes from (among other places) this site, which has a few other good ones, like:

How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
That’s not funny!

How many Freudian analysts does it take to change a lightbulb?
Two; one to change the bulb and one to hold the penis. I mean ladder.

The Wikipedia article on lightbulb jokes also has some good stuff (along with the discussion page):

How many Yalies does it take to change a lightbulb?
None. New Haven looks better in the dark.

Q: One.
A: How many time-travellers does it take to change a lightbulb?

And the Prairie Home Companion website has an endless supply of bad ones, with a few good ones thrown in.

Historians of Science on Wikipedia

The search results with the User: pages on Wikipedia turn up a fair number of historians of science, mostly graduate students and professors (and there are probably more who don’t mention their field on user pages). Check it:

Shleep
BWOgilvie
Wujastyk
AppleRaven
Neale Monks
Mollyclare
Xuanwu
Fastfission
Pfaff9
ABVR

On a related note, I’m starting a WikiProject for history of science. If you’re a Wikipedian (or would like to become one), you should join it.