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]


(cross-posted to Revise and Dissent)

The other day, I was chatting with a scientist about the history of science and related matters. When I told him I had taken a class on “Biology and Society”, focused on eugenics and genetics, he replied something to the effect of “that’s not really history of science, is it?” Actually, it was more of a statement than a question.

This scientist, quite eminent in his field, had a positive reaction to my current project (on the history of molecular evolution), but was rather cool on the field in general. He sees little of value, he confided, in “anthropological studies of science” (which I took to refer specifically to the work of Karin Knorr-Cetina, though I can’t be sure).

The main constituency of the history of science, aside from fellow historians of science, has traditionally been scientists and philosophers of science. The field has been growing for decades, but (in general, at least) moving away from the kinds of work that interest scientists or philosophers.

Case studies, rich in social significance but representing only a small slice of the scientific past, have become the norm. Even so, like most history today, the majority of it is only intelligible or interesting to other humanist scholars.

Though the field has grown rapidly since the mid-twentieth century, the scope of the scientific enterprise has grown much faster. A grad student can hardly write a seminar paper on post-WWII science without stumbling upon a handful of possible dissertation topics in virgin historical territory. Synthesis and grand narrative seem beyond reach, and moving further every day.

It’s enough to put one into a panic, if the state of historiography of any field were something to panic about. (Part of my own ham-fisted response was to try to piece together a comprehensive “History of Biology” article on Wikipedia.)

When I shared with the scientist my concern about the history of science accumulating faster than historians of science could handle, he said, “Give it time.” But if it’s not important, if it can wait, what’s the point in doing it at all?

My answer that question has a lot to do with why I contribute to Wikipedia.

Crooked Timber on Wikipedia

John Quiggin, Crooked Timber blogger and some-time Wikipedian, has a good post about Wikipedia and its upcoming milestone (millstone?) of 2,000,000 articles, “Wikipedia at 2 million“.

It’s followed by a lively discussion: 124 comments and counting. Well worth the price of admission, with plenty of crotchety knowledge workers pouring in from a link at the Chronicle of Higher Education blog about blogs, Footnoted.

Update: see comment #125.

Revise and Dissent

The semester is just starting, I’ve found a time my whole dissertation committee can meet for the prospectus defense (which means Yale will now let me enroll, hopefully), and it’s my birthday. After a couple great discussions with committee members, I’m excited about my dissertation project; I’ll share more about that when I get the chance.

More importantly, I’ve been invited to join the History News Network group blog Revise and Dissent. Here’s my first post: “What are historians good for?

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.

Metaphors of education

A semi-recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Just Scoring Points“, explores the dominant metaphors that students and teachers bring to the education process. All parties reject the “empty vessel” metaphor, where teachers pour knowledge into the passive students. Students may nominally accept the “constructing a building” metaphor, but as the author, entomologist Walter Tschinkel, challenged his students:

“You do understand that to build an edifice, every brick you add must remain in place? That is, in your education, you have to remember what you learned before, so that you can build on it in the next phase of education. But we have repeatedly experienced here that you remember little from your previous courses — or, for that matter, from the previous test, or even from last week. Your behavior violates the basic requirement of this metaphor.”

Tschinkel finds that students operate, at least implicitly, under a “sports” metaphor: it’s all about the points, and once each game is over, it’s best forgotten. He does his best to require more synthetic and progressive intellectual work in the “constructing a building” mode from his students. He avoids multiple choice, testing instead through writing, he singles students out to explain things to the class, and he gives quizzes early and often (sometimes over the same core material repeatedly, until the students learn it).

I grant Tschinkel’s point about the importance of a participatory learning process; this is where so much university education goes wrong. But reading this article got me thinking about whether “constructing a building” is even a metaphor educators should be aiming for. Constructing a building, after all, follows a set plan from the outset, with a well-defined foundation and a well-defined pinnacle.

What are other educational metaphors we can consider?

A “dining” metaphor is something close to how I’ve approached my own education (at least as an undergraduate). College is a sort of buffet, with far too many intellectual dishes for you to try everything in one sitting. So you go along, taking whatever looks good; if you decide you don’t like something, you just stop eating it (or maybe push it around the plate so it looks like you made a good attempt). If you’re a conscientious eater, maybe you are going for a nutritionally balanced meal, but more often than not you just grab whatever is most appetizing at the moment. The buffet is the liberal education approach, but other meal genres fit other educational programs: one-size-fits-all, compartmentalized school lunches for one-size-fits-all, compartmentalized primary and secondary public education; a fixed set of meal choices from a restaurant menu for the fixed professional degree programs; snacking for informal learning.

“Games”, as opposed to “sports”, may be another worthwhile metaphor. We play athletic games because they are fun. We may try to score points, but the real goals of play (as opposed to competition) are more intangible: connecting with other people, and developing general skills and abilities that are not particularly tied to the game at hand.

What other metaphors are out there in other societies? If sports is a particularly American education metaphor as Tschinkel implies, is there hope for fixing education without radical changes in American culture?

Access to Knowledge, academics, and IP

I spent this weekend attending the Access to Knowledge (A2K) conference (see wiki). A2K is a would-be social movement that ties together a number of existing intellectual property-related activism issues, ranging from free/libre open source software and copyleft, to copyright reform and fair use, to (abolishing) software patents, to patented crops and gene patents, to access to patented medicines in the developing world, to digital rights and privacy, to media regulation. I got to spend some time with Wikimedia board member and wiki developer Erik Möller, had a wonderful evening with a few friends, and met some interesting new people. And since I was in town for the weekend, I also got a chance to hear a wonderful talk by bad-ass historian of science Lorraine Daston on Enlightenment “observers” (naturalists, microscopists, and all-purpose obsessives) such as Charles Bonnet, who spent days on end (sleeping only occasionally and reluctantly) observing the every move of a single aphid, from birth to death, and on through several generations of parthenogenetic reproduction . Though their observations were considered a waste by their peers, Bonnet and other dedicated observers were consumed by their passion for observations (often sinking inherited fortunes into their projects); they never considered it work.

What, you ask, does A2K have to do with crazy Enlightenment patricians? After Daston’s talk, I was chatting with one of the authority figures in my department and let slip my own occasionally obsessive pastime. When I mentioned the Wikipedia history of biology article I had been working on (which became a Featured Article over the weekend–hooray!), I got a grumbling reply about peer reviewed publications and my C.V. This was the strongest disapproval this good-natured prof can project. He only perked up when I told him I had been invited to submit an opinion piece about Wikipedia and the history of science to the upcoming inaugural edition of Spontaneous Generations, a new open access history and philosophy of science journal. Now that there is an open access journal in the field, I said, I have somewhere to publish future work without feeling guilty. At this point I was reminded of what I already knew: it’s really tough to get humanists fired up about IP issues, even though these things ought to be high on their lists of social/political/cultural priorities (especially given the dreadful state of academic publishing).

The lawyers of the Yale Law School, on the other hand, are on the forefront of IP activism (hence hosting the A2K event). The conference was a mixed bag of interesting talks, old news, and random acts of scholarship. For the most part, the presenters from organizations I already liked (Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Internet Archive, Electronic Frontier Foundation) or should have already liked (Free Press) had the most interesting things to say, though presentations from Microsoft, Google, and Intel were also worth mentioning .

Erik encouraged me to put together a talk proposal for Wikimania 2007; if I can manage the logitistics, it’s an outside possibility.

MIT dean of admissions faked credentials

Marilee Jones, the MIT dean of admissions who has set the tone for making college admissions less of a ridiculous and unhealthy process at elite schools, resigned today after it was revealed that she had faked her credentials. In fact, she has no college degrees (rather than the three she had claimed since beginning at the MIT admissions office in 1979).

In other news, I’m thinking of dropping out of grad school to start my own degree mill. I’ll start by awarding myself a Doctorate of Mad Science in Flesh Reanimation, and a Masters of Disinformation Science.

Superb Wikipedia podcast; Ideas for Wikipedia to steal

There’s an extremely, superbly, awesomely good Wikipedia debate podcast at Language Lab Unleashed! It’s not good because it’s so correct (there are a number of misunderstandings, clichés, and analog wine in digital bottles) or insightful (Wikipedians have hashed out most of discussion many times over), but it gives a great cross-section of the ways academic humanists view Wikipedia.

The star of the show is Don Wyatt, chair of History at Middlebury College. He’s a classic curmudgeon, and gives voice to much of what I despise about the culture of the modern academy (a regular topic of my polemics), though he seems like a nice enough guy and it’s a rich and eloquent voice he gives it. Most of the comments coming out of Middlebury have been notably consonant with the wiki way (hence Jimbo’s endorsement of their official policy). But the policy was obviously a compromise, with Wyatt at the far end, viewing Wikipedia as a fundamental flawed endeavor and an unequivocal waste of time for any real scholar.

On the other end, Bryan Alexander and Robert Berkman (you know a geek when you hear one) have a good grasp of Wikipedia’s virtues, real and potential. In the middle is Elizabeth Colantoni, who is running a Wikipedia assignment at Oberlin (shoutout to User:WAvegetarian, apparently the student who inspired the assignment).

One of the best parts starts at around 55:15 (spun off from issues first posed beginning at 46:18), exploring the confluence of philosophy, epistemology, and copyright, with attitudes of today’s academics contrasted with the kids these days (and projecting into the future of the academy, when us kids will be in charge).

In other news, I found a major Wikipedia assignment I hadn’t noticed before: Marx Blog, the class blog of Derek Stanovsky at Appalachian State University, which is being used to write a monumental article/outline on Capital, Volume I.

Via Mills Kelly, I found a very cool site whose concept Wikipedia should steal: Swivel.com. Users upload data sets (in spreadsheets), and the site creates a huge and flexible array of graphs. Multiple data sets can be used to make a single graph, so that it would be easy to create custom graphs for specific articles, with baselines of some sort of general data graphed together with more specific data (e.g., and non-sequiter mash-up of Wikipedia stats with the temperature in Fresno). Kelly describes it as a Flickr for data (in another excellent Digital Campus podcast, though with no mention of Wikipedia this time, except for a plug of Joseph Reagle’s recent plagiarism post). There is a lot of room for improvements in Swivel’s functionality, but the bigger reason Wikipedia needs to steal the concept is that (in my humble opinion) the potential reach of “a Flickr for data” is rather limited unless it’s part of a larger project.

The academic job market, graduate education, the 2-4 Project, and GESO

As most graduate students in the humanities and social sciences know, the academic job market is crap. According to the recent Responsive Ph.D. report by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (full PDF here), “as few as two out of every ten” graduates in “disciplines like history and English” will get tenure-track jobs. (The report is unfortunately vague about what other disciplines are like history and English, and it has no references for where the figure comes from, but it seems believable.)

A closely related problem is the ever-growing time-to-degree. In the fields with the worst job markets, competitions is most intense and students feel they have to put that much more effort into dissertations to be competitive. Thus, it is not uncommon for humanists to spend 8 or even 10 years in graduates school.

The Responsive Ph.D. report lays out a set of four principles and four accompanying “themes” that make up the gist its conclusions:

  1. “A Graduate School For Real” (theme: new paradigms) — Graduate schools and their deans should have more authority within research universities, and graduate programs should be the intellectual center of the university. Scholarship should remain at the center of graduate education (despite calls to de-emphasize it in previous reports).
  2. “A Cosmopolitan Doctorate” (theme: new practices) — Graduate training needs to be more relevant to the real world, with more effort put into pedagogy and into the application of academic knowledge.
  3. “Drawn From the Breadth of the Populace” (theme: new people) — Graduate schools need to train more people of color. Non-whites are more interested in applying their expertise in socially significant ways, so this goes hand in hand with principle 2.
  4. “An Assessed Excellence” (theme: new partnerships) — Graduate programs need to evaluate themselves critically, and graduate schools need to evaluate their individual programs. And these evaluations need to “have teeth” in terms of funding, and they need to connect to needs of the broader system that employs graduates as well.

The first principles is not surprising: ask graduate deans how to change the system, and the they answer “give us more authority and a bigger budget.” Emphasis on scholarly depth is a half-hearted one; graduate school still has to train the elites of the next academic generation, but the uselessness of most of graduate training for anything but learning to do (overspecialized, esoteric, socially near-useless) research is getting harder to ignore.

The second principle is where it gets everything right. That’s what I’ve been screamin’ for a while now.

The third principle is nice in principle, but lack of diversity in graduate school is a problem caused almost entirely at lower levels (i.e., lack of educational opportunity at the primary and secondary levels, and to a lesser extent in undergraduate education). Class is the real underlying issue, and I don’t think addressing the problem in terms of race is an efficient way to move forward in the long term.

The fourth principle is a good one, I think. Graduate schools ought to be more free to shrink or eliminate weak programs or programs in fields that can’t absorb enough graduates.

In response to the Responsive Ph.D. report, Yale created the “2-4 Project“, an effort to seek suggestions and then implement changes in the structure of the second through fourth years of graduate training. I think most of the proposed changes would be positive; moving the first year of teaching to the second year (concurrent with coursework, a portion of which might be moved later) is a great idea, as is reduction in the time-to-candidacy. The other aspects are fairly minor, but in my view either good or neutral changes.

GESO, the attempted grad student union that has never quite managed a credible majority, has been strongly critical of the 2-4 Project (see this brochure), especially the rushing out of grad students and encouragement to scale back dissertations. Consistent with GESO’s view of grad students as semi-professional teacher-scholars (with the same academia wide de-emphasis on the “teacher” part), they strongly resist moves to make graduate school anything but a six-year (or more) all-expenses-paid research sabbatical for the preparation of the paradigm shifting work of scholarship that is the dissertation. They want more senior faculty, less faculty teaching load, more grad student funding and less teaching requirements.

A GESO organizer had an article in the YDN on October 18 about the 2-4 Project. A sixth-year in Germanic Languages and Literature, he makes an almost unbearably pretentious statement that sums up much of what I find wrong in the culture of the academy: “Writing a major intervention in my field takes time [seven to nine years]. That is what I was brought here to do, and it is what I intend to accomplish.” “Intervening” in a field, seemingly for the sake of intervening, is the high calling of the academy. And no matter how long it takes, it’s worth it (he is, after all, one of the chosen ones, “brought here” on a mission, and entitled to his turret in the ivory tower). In defense of the lengthening time-to-degree, he cites the 2-in-10 statistic above (ignoring, of course, that for Yale Ph.D.s, it’s probably closer to 8-in-10 who end up in tenure-track jobs). He writes off non-academic careers in the usual way: they’re fine for “students who want them”, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The problem is that reforming graduate education to incorporate and validate nonacademic career paths (another part of 2-4 he and GESO oppose) is the only way to give intellectual legitimacy to anything beyond that ivory tower model of sagacity.

Another 2-4 issue was grading reform; it was opposed by GESO and, as it turns out, a majority of grad students, and it was recently rejected by the faculty. Yale grad students can get one of three passing grades: Honors, High Pass, and Pass, while the proposal would have changed it to letter grades with pluses and minuses. As it is, grades at Yale mean nothing and are not very informative in terms of feedback; grade inflation being what it is, you have to try to earn below an HP. Since grad students themselves are the only ones who are ever likely to see grad school grades, grade reform seemed like a good idea. But apparently lots of people think grade fear would make students less likely to be adventurous in their course-taking. Meh. If you’re that afraid of having your ego bruised (since that would the only repercussion of getting a C, the de facto bottom of the Yale grading scale), then you’ll get no sympathy from me.