Introduction

I’m your instructor for this course, US History to 1877. In the course, we look at American history from the time before America existed through the government-stated end of Reconstruction. We’ll look at the people who participated in American history willingly and forcibly, as citizens and non-citizens, as immigrants and natives, as patriots and rebels, and we’ll look at the complicated mess that all those categories make.

My interest in history has blossomed over the past several decades. I majored in History and English Literature as an undergraduate, earned master’s degrees in Library and Information Science, History, and Science and Technology Studies, and am approaching completion for a Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies. My research interests are in the comparative uses of libraries by undergraduate and graduate students, and in taxidermy in natural history museums.

But my interest in history lies in its usefulness. As we’re seeing today, history is really important to understanding the world around us. I’m writing this on August 21, 2017, having just looked at a solar eclipse. Two items there are important: First, August 21 is the anniversary of an uprising of enslaved people in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. Second, Nat Turner, leader of that rebellion, observed a solar eclipse in February of that year and interpreted it as a sign to start slaying his enemies with their own weapons.

Do I think that the eclipse is a sign for me to rebel against government entities that are holding me back? Absolutely not. But I also see the eclipse and all the history of eclipse-as-omen and understand that events like this can serve as reminders of what’s happened in the past and how history works.

People learn different information from the same event. The eclipse of May 1919 confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In the ancient Mediterranean world, eclipses were signs that a ruler would die. Some saw the eclipse of 1918 as marking the beginning of American dominance in the world, as it also coincided with the nearing end of World War I.

History works the same way. The same event, or the same kind of event, can be interpreted and reinterpreted to give prominence to different actors, explain different causes, or redefine certain terms. And it’s useful to recognize these diverging views of history as explanations for how we view the world—and especially the people in it—differently.

Posted in HIST201FA17

Welcome!

Welcome to History 201!

This is the blogging platform we’ll be using weekly. In it, you’ll post items relevant to course material and comment on each other’s posts.

Why blog?

Blogs are publicly available. I want you to be confident in your writing—confident enough to have the sentences and paragraphs be read by your friends and family, as well as people across the world you don’t know.

What should I blog?

Post items that are relevant to the course material. You have some options here, but try to vary which you do: 1) Respond to the week’s reading. 2) Describe a recent historical discovery and its significance. 3) Discuss a controversy tied to an interpretation of history. 4) Evaluate a representation of an historical event in popular culture.

Regardless of which option (of 2-4) you choose, the subject must match the scope of the course. That is, don’t write about Spike Lee’s Malcolm X for a course on the US Survey to 1877 or the history of science or technology.

When should I blog?

Every week!

And, you should comment on blogs by your classmates.

 

Finally, blogging can be a great way to learn more in the class. By reading other people’s ideas, you can expand the ways you consider a topic. Also, other people can call you out for your opinions. When you make a claim, be sure to support it. Stating that someone is wrong in an interpretation of history is absolutely acceptable, as long as you’re able to back it up. Failing to try to back it up only weakens your stance.

Posted in HIST201FA17

Welcome!

Welcome to History 201!

This is the blogging platform we’ll be using weekly. In it, you’ll post items relevant to course material and comment on each other’s posts.

Why blog?

Blogs are publicly available. I want you to be confident in your writing—confident enough to have the sentences and paragraphs be read by your friends and family, as well as people across the world you don’t know.

What should I blog?

Post items that are relevant to the course material. You have some options here, but try to vary which you do: 1) Respond to the week’s reading. 2) Describe a recent historical discovery and its significance. 3) Discuss a controversy tied to an interpretation of history. 4) Evaluate a representation of an historical event in popular culture.

Regardless of which option (of 2-4) you choose, the subject must match the scope of the course. That is, don’t write about Spike Lee’s Malcolm X for a course on the US Survey to 1877 or the history of science or technology.

When should I blog?

Every week!

And, you should comment on blogs by your classmates.

 

Finally, blogging can be a great way to learn more in the class. By reading other people’s ideas, you can expand the ways you consider a topic. Also, other people can call you out for your opinions. When you make a claim, be sure to support it. Stating that someone is wrong in an interpretation of history is absolutely acceptable, as long as you’re able to back it up. Failing to try to back it up only weakens your stance.

Posted in HIST201FA17

Reading while Dissertating

Obviously, reading is intimately connected with research. The process of creating a dissertation necessitates forging a relationship with researchers who’ve trod on the same ground before, years before, in other directions, and with different guiding principles. Understanding the conversation, through reading the work of the participants, is essential to contributing to that conversation.

That’s not what this is about.

This is about reading for pleasure. For fun. Reading things that aren’t about the dissertation topic, or necessarily academic in nature at all. I’ve been terrible about this sort of reading for quite a while, having read only Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy in the past five years. That’s only six books that aren’t part of my research or graduate classes.

I could say that I’ve been so focused on dissertating that I’ve neglected the book part of my life. But I’ve spent hours watching TV and movies and playing Zelda games, when I could’ve spent them reading. I’ve been culturally engaged, just not as broadly applied as I’d like.

My only New Year’s Resolution has been rectifying this situation. I intend to read 15 or so books during 2015, by authors from a variety of backgrounds. Or, since a number is difficult to achieve in a resolution, I want to always be in the process of reading a book that’s not part of my research. If that means that I only get through Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, that’s okay, since it’s a 750ish page book. But I’m already halfway through that one, so I think I’ll finish it and many others this year.

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Why is this so important to me? I think that reading outside of my research will help my research and improve my contributions to academia.

Force a break from research. So many research epiphanies strike in the shower, or when trying to fall asleep. It’s the not-thinking about the project that allows our work to breathe, breaking free from being stifled by the structure we impose on it when actively writing. Reading something different helps us stop thinking about the research for ten minutes, allowing other areas to get some cognitive exercise.


Connect to the outside world.
Other disciplines exist in the academic world–that much academics understand. But still, reading outside a discipline keeps academics looking at the interior walls of the ivory tower. Reading other works, fiction and non-fiction alike, creates an awareness of culture outside of academia. And this awareness of other people makes academics more human.

Talk about something else. Nobody wants to hear about museum taxidermy all the time. Well, I suppose there’s a small cadre of people who would enjoy such talks, but even I’m not one of them. I want to talk about something else, and I’m sure that other people, including my family, want to hear about something else. Reading provides that relational connection and creates points of common interest both interdepartmentally and with those who work outside academia.

Engage with different perspectives. Reading is a way to explore how others view the world. It’s easy entry into a conversation with people other than yourself. And to this point, it’s deeply rewarding. By engaging with different perspectives, with different backgrounds, with different lives, we develop empathy toward others. This empathy makes us better researchers and better teachers, and better ambassadors for our research and our discipline.
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So, what am I doing this year? Reading a lot. Well, maybe not a lot, but for 10 minutes or so every day.

My focus this year will be on authors who aren’t white, or who aren’t male, or for whom English is not the first language, getting outside of my own experience and privileges. There’s a lot on the list that I should’ve read a long time ago, or as soon as it came out. And there are some that are on the list for the sake of expanding my sci-fi literacy. But mostly, it’s a list that I’m very much looking forward to reading through, and that I’m eager to talk with people about.

I’ve used the covers of the books that are on my list in this post, and I welcome recommendations for other books. A lot of this list is unfamiliar material to me, and I’d especially enjoy input suggesting replacement books that might be more representative of an author’s work, subject, or genre.

What’s your list?

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STS in the Archives

As a field of academic inquiry, Science and Technology Studies (STS) developed against the diverse disciplinary backdrops of history, philosophy, and sociology of science and technology, as well as science and technology policy. The relationship between STS and these disciplines has been one of community, with scholarship in the various disciplines borrowing from one another under the broader auspices of STS.

STS is a juncture for work done in this variety of disciplines, as David Hess describes in Science Studies.[1] For Hess, the function of STS is to provide a conceptual toolkit for thinking about expertise in different and meaningful ways. Each of the more well-defined disciplines—history, philosophy, sociology, policy studies—contributes to this methodological toolkit, benefitting one another. STS tracks the history of scientific disciplines and technological developments, the dynamics of science and technologies as social institutions, and the philosophical basis for scientific knowledge and technological know-how. This schema does not mutually exclude sociology, history, and philosophy, but it rather encourages collaboration among the diverse disciplines within STS. This collaboration did much to improve the general quality of STS work, as well as that of the individual disciplines that comprise it.

In this interdisciplinary melange, where and how to STSers do their research? A simple answer: everywhere. STS reaches into the field to find company for researchers on expeditions, into laboratories to watch science happen, into classrooms where STEM becomes STEAM, into coffeeshops for interviews with scientists, into study rooms where philosophers think on their armchairs… and even into archives.

See, science isn’t a one-time event, nor is it a singular action or object. Instead, science exists as a conglomeration of the many people who worked to build to an idea; the shoulders of giants, as Isaac Newton put it. But not all these giants were scientists. Scientific knowledge comes out of the circumstances surrounding it.

This is where STS benefits from the archives. Those who made scientific discoveries did so in the context of their own lives. Personal relationships, political opinions, clothing and food preferences, schedules for laundry and cleaning quarters–all these are the invisible factors that shape scientific knowledge.But they are not so invisible. Archival material of people who work on scientific projects and technological innovations reveal factors outside laboratory conditions. And more! One piece of archival material can connect to a dozen other folders and boxes that expand the researcher’s ideas, demonstrating that a network of laboratory assistants collaborated on other projects, too. And while the preference of buttered toast over oatmeal may seem insignificant, the relationships are not.

But what of the archive’s benefit from STS? Though research within STS is varied, one component remains relatively stable. STS examines the external factors and impacts of scientific research and technological innovations. STS wants to find the people affected by policy decisions, medical advances, environmental injustices. STS digs through archives, looking for the papers no other researcher has found or used, and utilizes the resources at the archivist’s disposal to map the development and spread of knowledge, or of disease, or of early technology adoption. STS adds to metadata, tagging material with new identifiers, thereby expanding their uses for more researchers. And STSers are generally friendly people, too.

This is not to say that STS is the renaissance for archives; archives don’t need any such thing. Instead, the combination of STS and digital connectedness increases the prominence of archives’ usefulness. Where digital connectedness expands the number of users that see the material, STS expands the types of usefulness of that material.

Through STS, archives can make clear cases to their involvement in STEM departments that might otherwise not see the relevance of manuscripts and rare books to their research. But everything has a story, and archives, with STS, help fill in the gaps in those stories.

[1] David Hess, Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction  (New York: NYU Press, 1997).

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Striped Hyenas, Taxidermy, and Science

I don’t often contribute to crowdsourced fundraising, but I did last night. I gave some of my graduate student stipend to the IndieGogo campaign to help The Brain Scoop and The Field Museum build a new diorama–striped hyenas.

Striped Hyenas at the Field Museum, Chicago

Striped Hyenas at the Field Museum, Chicago

Why this diorama? and more importantly, Why did I give to this particular campaign?

Emily Graslie, host of The Brain Scoop, makes the argument for this diorama, though her reasoning is largely historical: Carl Akeley was a great character; dioramas recreate a particular place that has all but disappeared; the number of hyenas has dramatically diminished.

These are all good reasons for funding a project like this one. But what is the scientific value of this diorama, or of dioramas in general? I offer three ideas:

1) Dioramas recreate a specific place. They have several parts that contribute to the realness of a place, including the painted, curved background, the plants, rocks, and floor in the foreground, and the taxidermy animals themselves. Early diorama creators, like Frank Michler Chapman, developed the technique to recreate disappearing places that had drawn the attention of conservationists, such as Pelican Island, among the last rookeries for brown pelicans.

Pelican Group, rebuilt, North American Bird Hall, 1960. American Museum of Natural History, New York City.

Pelican Group, rebuilt, North American Bird Hall, 1960. American Museum of Natural History, New York City. Digital Special Collections, image number 327556

2) Dioramas tell a story. Carl Akeley was a naturalist and explorer alongside his talents in sculpture and taxidermy. Perhaps key to his famous taxidermy was his well-tuned skills in observation. He saw behaviors in animals that he recreated in his taxidermy. Though some critique his dioramas as masculine, capitalistic, imperialistic—Donna Haraway in “Teddy Bear Patriarchy” (Social Text 1984), especially—or as promoting a normative heterosexual nuclear family unit, Akeley based his dioramas largely in observation.*

3) Dioramas promote conservation. The irony of taxidermy is that it’s supposed to show us a specimen that is nearly lost. But in order to get that specimen into a museum, it must be killed, thereby depleting the species’ number by one (or more, if creating a group). This irony was not lost on Akeley, who then worked to develop protected areas, such as Albert National Park in Democratic Republic of the Congo (now Virunga National Park), where Akeley died in an expedition to study and collect mountain gorillas.

This doesn’t answer why I chose to give to this particular project. It’s not often that we get to be a part of something that is (a) both scientifically and historically significant, (b) do it from a distance, and (c) watch the project grow, impacting millions of people.

When I first visited the Field Museum in November 2014, I was struck by the odd placement of the hyenas—they don’t belong next to reptiles. What’s more is that I recognized the display as something of Akeley’s. I’ve been studying museum taxidermy for a while, since it’s the subject of my dissertation research, and the immediate recognition was exhilarating. In front of the striped hyenas, I knew that I could do this project, and that I had internalized the material to the point of identifying taxidermy styles and lines of influence.

If you’re inclined, contribute to this cause. You don’t have much more time to give to the online campaign, but I hope you’ll help make the striped hyenas meaningful for decades (and centuries!) to come.

*This, too, is problematic, as observation and creation are heavily influenced by anticipation of what we’re supposed to see. I’ll write about this in a later post.

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Final Project

I’ve nearly completed a first draft of this project, with a good sense of what I’ll be using to teach this class. Before the semester’s over, I’ll be refining the class, adjusting some of the parts to be more thorough or to prepare myself to anticipate questions that might arise in the run of the class.

The largest difficulties I’m having are making the class more student-centered than it is. I want students in the class to be active, to contribute to their own learning, and enhance their own understanding of the material. This is difficult regardless of the class, but particularly difficult in a one-off class, where there is little time to develop rapport with students. This aspect is where I still need some help figuring out how to best complete the project.

I’ve learned in this project that designing a class is never truly complete. Some aspects will change many times, and I don’t anticipate teaching this class the same way twice. Furthermore, instructing students in citation and academic integrity always requires an awareness of contemporary ethical dilemmas that students and broader academic communities face.

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STS and Ethics

In the field of Science and Technology Studies, a lot of what researchers do involves a critique of scientific research. In many cases, this involves the ethics of researchers. Environmental ethics come into play, as do medical ethics, journalistic ethics, and social ethics.

We evaluate and analyze the ways in which researchers engage with their subjects, and the impact of their research on the wider public and on policy. We argue about normative ethical behavior among scientists, and about actions that scientists actually engage in. While we do this, though, we must understand that we, too, ought to be held to some ethical standards. We must do our research at the same ethical level, with a responsibility to the scientists and their research to present it fairly.

Maybe this is all based on a sense of normative ethics. We expect others to behave responsibly, so we ought also to do our research with the same responsibility.

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Universities and a Social Contract

It’s frustrating doing graduate work, for many reasons. Right now, the frustration is with the ways the system functions. (Note: I almost used the word “work,” but I reconsidered since it doesn’t always work.)

Higher education places the most importance on sustaining itself. This makes sense, with a clear nod toward evolutionary thinking and strategic planning for one’s perpetuation. But that self-sustaining attitude comes at a cost, and for higher education, that cost deals with who it prepares and how it prepares them.

The “who” of this equation is best discussed in Declining by Degrees, especially focusing on the disservice done to poorer students and adjunct-ing professors. The “how” is more complex. Research gets funding, so of course universities focus their efforts there, and not in teaching. This is a problem, discussed ad nauseum.

The bigger problem, for me, and the source of my current frustration, is in how the university prepares me to go into the academic workforce. I don’t see myself as a major researcher, but more as a teacher. Or, maybe even in an alternate academic career, such as librarianship. These are not the routes that my advisor (or most advisors at a university) took, so the guidance given isn’t as helpful as it might be if I saw academic research as my primary career goal.

If universities want to be self-perpetuating, they need to consider that all aspects of the university are important, and not just the parts that bring in money. Teachers, researchers, and support staff comprise the whole of the institution. When the three parts are given relatively equal importance, and when students are able to work in any one of them, then the social contract of preparing students for work is fulfilled.

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Historians and Ethics

My research, and my academic interests, are straddled between several fields: Science and Technology Studies (STS), History (of Science), and Librarianship. The professional organizations most directly relevant to these fields are 4S (the Society for the Social Study of Science), HSS (History of Science Society), AHA (American Historical Association), and ALA (American Library Association).

The ethical codes from these differ in their formalities: the ALA has a clear Code of Ethics; the AHA has a Statement of Professional Conduct. 4S doesn’t have any such formal statement; neither does HSS. Regardless, the ethical considerations of ALA and AHA can be transposed to other academic interests in the way scholarship and service regard people.

ALA and AHA have different missions, with ALA more oriented toward service, and AHA more toward scholarship. Nonetheless, the two codes of ethical conduct have some similarities that might be relevant to a wide spread of academic departments. Advocacy for intellectual property rights, courtesy and support for colleagues, and disinterested workmanship are some of the ethical properties that cross disciplinary boundaries, making for some broadly-sweeping ethical standards across academia.

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