Category Archives: narrative history

Narrative history vs. Insightful history, Time and Space

As much as I like John Demos’s Narrative History class (and as much as I’m learning about writing and style), I’ve come to realize that I have neither the desire nor the knack to be a narrative historian. Frankly, the more narrative, engaging, engrossing, lyrical the prose has been in the class (particularly the short essays my classmates and I have written), the less the content could possibly be historically interesting (according to my definition of interesting, of course). This week we wrote papers on 9/11, and the other paper were all very nicely written; some of them were really very much better than basically anything you would find in an academic work. Better than the narrative history books we’ve read so far, I thought. But you also would not find those ones in an academic work.

[Thanks go to the Subtle Doctor for his report on my classmates.]

For next week, our writing topic is totally open; we’re expected to apply these narrative methods we’ve been practicing to something in our own sphere of interest/knowledge. I haven’t actually done any research (e.g., the institutional history of Yale’s various biology departments or G. E. Hutchinson’s letters of recommendation) that involves a compelling story, so I’m going to have to basically retell a history of science story I’m familiar with [note: prepositions are for ending sentences with, no matter what Prof. Demos says]. But looking over my bookshelves, full of science stories I like so much, I find it hard to think of one I could retell with conviction, without explicit analysis. I’m afraid it will turn into one of those scientist-as-hero stories, the fight against which is exactly what makes history of science so interesting.

Meanwhile, I’m currently reading Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space for Ole Molvig’s class. We read a small part of it last semester for the Intro to History of Science class, and I found very little value in it; it tries to make massive connections across turn-of-the-century culture (1880-1918, precisely), incorporating art, literature, philosophy, science, technology, and whatever else Kern could find into a very loose framework analyzing how people experienced the concepts of time and space. One criticism we had was: it was so broad, but every time it touched on something we knew it seemed particularly weak, making the rest with which we were less familiar suspect as well. But starting from the beginning (and reading his circumspect introduction where he acknowledges the limits of his approach), I like it much better. Mainly because it’s well-written and it flows. Even if the broad connections are very weak and contingent on the sources he chose to include and not include (and they are), it does a great job giving an overview of how a relatively small canon of cultural figures fit into the emerging culture of modernity, and approaches them from an interesting (particularly for a historian of science) thematic perspective. It has neither the virtues of narrative prose nor the strengths of thesis-driven argument, but it’s a compelling presentation nonetheless.

Readings, Research, Lamarck stuff

Classes continue unabated; I’m almost back into the swing of things, as far as reading and working all the time.

I’ve not been particularly inspired by any readings lately, except Flatland. The Time Machine was also a good reread. I was also somewhat intrigued by Principles of Scientific Management; it’s surprisingly readable and it basically still informs a lot of management philosophy today. It’s a sort of capitalist manifesto.

For Narrative Histories, I read the superb The Murder of Helen Jewett. As far as garden-variety micro-history goes, it really doesn’t get much better (if you don’t mind reading about 1830’s NYC). Unfortunately, the next book was the dull Judge Sewall’s Apology, a masterful boringification of the Salem witch trials.

We’ve yet to read a whole book, or anything really insightful, in the sociology of knowledge course, but it gives me a chance to reflect on some the methods and approaches of sociology that I’m only slightly familiar with. I’m going to write my paper for that class on the role of letters of recommendation in science; last semester I wrote a research paper based on G Evelyn Hutchinson’s letters of recommendation, so I hope to be able to strengthen that paper with the insights of a more general look at recommendations. I’m not sure if any literature exists in sociology or if I’ll have to make it up as I go.

For Science, Technology and Modernity, I’m probably going to do my research paper on visual images in science pedagogy and popular science. It seems like abstract images conveying scientific content were really rare (especially at a non-expert level) before the mid-20th century. Graphs and charts were virtually non-existent in popular literature, and most scientific illustrations were obviously aiming for naturalistic representation of actual sights. So it seems like this shift toward more abstraction of concepts visually went along with the other changes that get lumped into “modernism” and “modernity.” We’ll see how well that thesis bears out once I get down to looking at lots of sources, and hopefully I can pin down the timeframe a little better.

Meanwhile, I’ve redone the Lamarck sticker; it’s slicker now, and I put it on t-shirts. I ordered one today and plan to wear it to the History of Science Society meeting.