New city, new job

Whew! It’s a been a hectic few months since I blogged last!

Pittsburgh, our new home

Faith, Brighton and I bought a house and moved to greater Pittsburgh in late May (Glenshaw, to be precise). I have to call Faith “Dr. Honey”, instead of just honey; she has her M.D. now and is serving an anesthesiology residency at UPMC. Pittsburgh is awesome. The people are quite friendly (if rather more sexist and religiously conservative than New Englanders, on average). The “Pittsburgh Left” is both charming and dangerous. And I started a vegetable garden!

I’m not yet finished with my dissertation, but with the necessary move to Pittsburgh and the need to pull in at least some income, my options seemed limited. Academic positions were basically a non-starter. I was looking into jobs as a lab tech or a photographer or an in-home child-care provider, and there are actually some jobs in the Pittsburgh area (moreso than in much of the country). None looked too appealing. But the perfect opportunity opened up for me at perfect time.

I can has job?

In June I took a position with the Wikimedia Foundation: “online facilitator” for their 17 month “Public Policy Initiative“. In short, I’m part of a team focused on creating a Wikipedia Ambassadors program and developing good ways to get professors and their classes involved with improving Wikipedia content. (As a pilot, we’re starting with public policy professors in the U.S., but we hope to expand the scope of the programs we’re starting after the basics are in place.) I tell people I’m the head of the Pittsburgh Office of the Wikimedia Foundation. If you’re a Wikimedian in the Pittsburgh area, let’s get together some time; I’m going to try to start having regular Pittsburgh wiki and free culture meetups, which have never really happened before.

Finally, Wikimania. It deserves a post of its own

the ways in which

Have you ever heard the phrase “interested in the ways in which”? If you have, it was probably uttered by a scholar in the humanities or social sciences, describing their research interests. There’s a good chance that the explanation that followed was rich in jargon, heavy on social theory, and an mostly opaque to anyone not in the same field as the speaker. It was probably also an American or a Brit. (If this doesn’t ring any bells for you, take a look at the search results for “interested in the the ways in which“.) As a fellow graduate student pointed out to me, “the ways in which” has a very strong connotation, marking a certain style of thinking and writing about history and society. Most people that come through giving talks to my program, whether for job talks, colloquia, or some other lectures, can pretty easily be divided into “ways in which” types and people who know how to hold an audience’s attention.

Reflecting on the problems of jargon that come with writing history that is only meant for other historians, I’m working on a paper: “The Pedagogical Semiotics of Interlinguistic Anglophone Discourse, 2008-1999”. On a closely related note, the grad students are think of doing either drinking games or jargon bingo to spice up future talks. “Blah blah blah, blah blah actor’s category, blah blah.” “Bingo!”

On another related note, every would-be historian needs to watch the latest The Simpsons, “That 90s Show”, if you haven’t already. See a few clips here. Choice quotes:

  • Suede-elbow-patched associate professor: “Look at that lighthouse! It’s the ultimate expression of phallocentric technocracy violating Mother Sky.” Marge: “I thought they were just tall so boats could see them.” Professor: “No, Marge, everything penis-shaped is bad.”
  • Marge: “Did you know that history is written by the winners?” Homer: “Really? I thought history was written by losers!”

Bonus link: PhD Comics on thesis titles

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?

Prospectus writing in a post-Wikipedia world

For a few weeks now (or is it months?) I’ve been struggling to get a hold of a coherent dissertation topic. I actually have a pretty good idea of the general subject I’m going to do my research on: the disciplinary splits and diversification in biology since the 1950s, especially the “Molecular Wars” between organismal and molecular biology and the history of molecular evolution, which straddled the divide. I’ve been getting to know the existing secondary material (which is very thin) and the individuals and archives that might be at the center of an extended history of molecular evolution (which are numerous).

As I collect and organize all this information, searching for a sufficiently limited yet compelling research approach, I’m increasingly drawn to the potential of prosopography (the historical study of groups of people and the connections among them). My advisor, Dan Kevles, was one of the pioneers of prosopography in the history of science with his dissertation-project-turned-first-book The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America. But wikis offer the potential for a new kind of prosopography, which surprisingly has seen very little development outside Wikipedia itself. (One major online non-wiki prosopography effort is Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, which has an amazing amount of information but has an all-but-useless interface.) As an experiment, I took my recent acquisition of the Evolving Genes and Proteins book (the proceedings from a 1964 conference on molecular evolution that produced a number of very influential papers) and created List of participants in the Evolving Genes and Proteins symposium. About 40 of the ca. 250 participants already have Wikipedia entries, including 22 of the 56 who contributed to the proceedings (and probably the majority of the rest will have entries as some point). If similar wiki-databases were created for other important conferences, contributors to important journals, scientists in specific fields who had been associated with specific instititution, etc. (either on Wikipedia, or elsewhere to facilitate original research), it could be the groundwork for the kind of quantitative history that social historians have been pining for but have never really pulled off. It could make prosopography (and maybe even collaborative history) worth doing.

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.

I passed my orals!

Yesterday I passed my oral qualifiers. Three of my fields went pretty smoothly (history of the physical sciences since the mid-19th century; history of the biological sciences since 1859; and 20th-century American history), while the one I was feeling most confident about (science fiction and science writing) was somewhat of a train-wreck. Despite that, it was probably the field I put the most work into and I feel good about what I got out of it as I prepared for the exam.

I slept great the night before the exam. Last night, after I had passed, I could hardly sleep at all. I’ve heard a number of comments like “this is the most you’ll ever know”, that after qualifiers you do more forgetting than learning new things. That’s a depressing thought.

Soon I’ll start working on my prospectus. In the meantime, I get to turn my thoughts to things that really matter, like Wii and Wikipedia and teaching (and grading, ugh).

Closing in on qualifiers

My first semester as a teaching assistant is done, and in about two months I’ll be taking qualifiers. I was pretty pleased with the way the course (Ole Molvig’s “History of Modern Science in Society”) went. I was disappointed with the amount of low amount of reading the class was willing to do; discussions were perpetually hamstrung because a large portion of the class didn’t do the reading in any given week. However, leading discussions was fun and I think I got a lot better at it as the semester went by. We used the Wikipedia assignment that I designed, which took a lot more work (on my part and the students’) than the original assignment. You can see the results here:

(On a related noted, I wrote an article for the Wikipedia Signpost on Wikipedia assignments.)

As it turns out, I’m a hard-ass grader. (Technically, grades were Ole’s responsibility while grading was mine, but still.) History of Science, History of Medicine has the unfortunate reputation of being an easy major at Yale. So, especially considering the amount of work I required of them, many students were frustrated with the low grades (a B+ average, which is considered a bad grade these days). Now I have the reputation of a TA to avoid. But it’s hard to feel bad about it; grade inflation doesn’t do anyone any favors.

This semester will probably be different. I’m TAing for Susan Lederer’s “A History of American Bodies”, which has 7 TAs and possibly up to 300 students. That means the grading will be fairly uniform across sections and the overall distribution will probably be higher.

Matt Gunterman is back at Yale, and he’s the head TA, which means he has to run point for all the class logistics. Ha ha. Sucks to be him. He has a blog post about the first lecture. I’m glad he’s back, and I’m also TAing with my fellow 3rd year Brendan; it looks like we’ll do our orals on the same day, and we have two fields more-or-less in common, so I’m looking forward to having some orals prep discussions with him. It’s nice to have someone to bitch about orals with.

For the first time in my graduate career, I’m not going to audit or sit in on any extra classes this semester. In theory, that means I have more time for orals reading. But in practice, I can’t read for more than about four hours a day; after that, nothing sinks in and I lose all will to keep at it. Some people are capable of more sustained reading, but I think most graduate students are not (unless they’re popping Ritalin); qualifier preparation is like a hazing ritual. (At Yale, qualifiers are actually not so harrowing an experience, but they still have enough of the traditional elements to cause plenty of stress and induce plenty of depression.)

Speaking of Ritalin, I’ve been trying to convince Faith to score me some free samples from the pharma reps, but she won’t. (They give out whatever prescriptions medical students are on that are still under patent protection; unforunately, Faith’s meds just went generic but aren’t yet being produced by very many sources, so they’re hardly any cheaper but no longer free.) Since becoming a coffee and tea drinker, I’ve become much more attuned to the effects things like carbohydrates, salt, and caffeine. I want to branch out to self-testing of more psychoactive substances, but I haven’t gotten around to it. Oh well.

Free at last (sort of)

What’s Update: Courses over, Orals Fields shaping up, HSS paper accepted, WikiProject History of Science going great

My second year of coursework is over, so technically I’m done course-taking (except for the paper on science fiction for Agnew, for which I took a temporary incomplete until June). Next year I’ll be TA-ing, and probably sitting in on a least 1 additional course each semester. In the meantime, I’m studying for orals and working part-time in Manuscripts and Archives (this time working on the digitization of the finding aids, which means I get to become much more familiar what’s available here).

Because we still don’t for-sure have an early-modernist on the faculty and I can’t do both “Early-Modern Science” and “History of the Physical Sciences” with Ole, my fields are still up in the air. However, I may have found someone to supervise a field in “Science Fiction and Science Writing.” If that works out, I’ll split the cream of the early-modern crop into the Physical and Biological fields, and my four fields (~50 books each, though the Sci-Fi & Science Writing field might need to be much larger if it consists siginficantly of primary sources) will be:

  • History of Biological Sciences
  • History of Physical Sciences
  • Science Fiction and Science Writing
  • 20th Century American History

My presentation abstract for HSS was accepted; at the Vancouver meeting in November I will be giving a talk, tentatively titled “Natural Philosophy Images: Pedagogy and Popular Science in America.” How trendy is that? Visual culture, pedagogy, and popular science, all in one. It will be based on a paper I wrote in the Fall on the use of images in 19th- and early 20th-century introductory (high school/academy) natural philosophy and physics textbooks and popular science magazines. As I develop it more this summer, I’m probably going to focus on textbooks, and and try to connect the use of images to the changing role of science in American society as well as the changes within academic culture (professionalization, the rise of university research, and the related changes in teaching methods). I may dip into the archives of some of the Yale textbook authors.

WikiProject History of Science continues to grow; now there are 47 nominal participants, and a new subproject for History of Biology. Among the recent additions is Steve McCluskey, a well-known expert on archaeoastronomy. Beginning in June, there will now be a History of Science Collaboration of the Month; it looks like the first one will be Women in science. I’m very excited about this, as there are a bazillion women in science list-servs, and I plan on spamming every one (as well as my former classmates from “Science, Feminism and Modernity”). In anticpation, I got the two volumes of Margaret Rossiter’s Women Scientists in America. And best of all, the History of Science Portal (which I maintain) has been promoted to “featured” status, one of only 14 so distinguished.

In other Wikipedia news, I turned my term paper for Peter Westwick into Military funding of science, I’ve done a bit of recent work on the always enjoyable Science Wars, my re-write of Johannes Kepler is about halfway done and continues to creep along, and I have plans to use the material from Michael Kammen’s “American Nationalism and American Culture” to greatly improve Nationalism in the United States (a few of my classmates have given me permission to GFDL their book reports and short papers).

Bonus links:

Spring 2006 classes

Last week I finally got my course schedule figured out:

  • American Nationalism & American Culture – Michael Kammen
  • Science, Arms and the State – Peter Westwick
  • “The American Century”, 1941-1961 – Jean-Christophe Agnew

I’m also taking French for Reading, auditing a bioinformatics class and sitting in on Lloyd Ackert’s History of Ecology. Up until the middle of the week I was still hoping to take Advanced Topics in Macroevolution, the syllabus of which consisted of going through Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Being that I’m an historian of evolutionary biology, have audited a graduate-level evo course, and have a fairly broad science background in general, I figured this would be perfect for me, and Ole encouraged me to take it as a graded class instead of an audit. But the professor, who just returned from vacation and returned my messages on Monday, will not let me take it because I don’t have enough graded coursework as relevant background; she says it would be unfair to the other students (paleontology grad students) to let me in. I wrote her a caustic email about how, in fact, it was unfair to her students not to have me there. But only in my head.

But aside from driving to New Haven 4 days a week (probably 5 on weeks with job talks, like this week), this semester should be really good; the Westwick and Agnew courses are superb so far, and the Kammen course was awkward at first but is getting better. The department is now going to administer language tests internally, and I expect to be able to pass French at the end of this semester. The bioinformatics class (in the statistics department) has been really enjoyable so far; I forgot how fun math can be. And Lloyd’s class is really small (two undergrads, and me), so I get to show of my book learnin’ and have nice informal discussions with Lloyd twice a week about various historical topics related to the cycle of life.

The Wikipedia history of science project that I started is going really well; it’s up to 19 participants. I’ve decided to take advantage of my access to Yale, so I’m going to try to periodically find well-illustrated old science books that haven’t made their way to Beinecke yet, scan illustrations, and put them on Wikipedia. This week, I checked out Ernst Haeckel’s incredible Kunstformen der Natur (1899), a 13 inch folio with 100 full-page illustrations, many of them in color. I’ve scanned sea anemones, orchids, nepenthes, and ammonites so far.

The semester is finally over

I just finished and submitted my last paper of the semester. I’ve never had such a hard time finishing one. I got an extension from December 16 to January 2, and by then I was only about halfway through. I spent three weeks doing everything I could to avoid writing it, because I had lost interest. I did about 200 edits on Wikipedia in the “I’ll get back to writing just as soon as I check …” mindset. About a week ago I decided I would rather lose a toe (one of the smallest three, on either foot) than write it. I would lay in bed trying to get to sleep when I wasn’t tired, because I knew if I wasn’t in bed I needed to be writing. The whole time I was in Oklahoma and Texas, I had this awful weight hanging over me. And finally, it’s over.

I’m ready for a new semester. The department will be hosting more job talks soon (though they haven’t announced any names). In December we had Bruno Strasser and Laurn Kassell. Each presented work in progress, and I think many of us were disappointed with both, although the candidates themselves were more impressive than their talks. Strasser’s weak talk was particularly disappointing to me, because he does work that is extremely relevant to my interests (the intersection of evolutionary biology and molecular biology/biochemistry); he would be a possible thesis advisor (though Dan would still be the most likely choice).

For classes this semester, I’ll probably be taking:
Medieval Hebrew Scientific Philosophy – Gad Freudenthal
Science, Arms and the State – Peter Westwick
American Century: 1941-1961 – Jean-Christophe Agnew
French or German (I’ve taken one class in each, but I’m not yet proficient enough to pass the tests)

I’m also going to try to sit in on or audit these:
Advanced Topics in Macroevolution – This class consists of working through Gould‘s Structure of Evolutionary Theory.
Comparative Genetics – This is a bioinformatics class on the methods of using genetics databases.

In the meantime I’m going to get back to work on Wikipedia; Kepler needs me.