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Creative Disciplinary Tensions + New Contributor February 21, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Awhile ago now I was discussing the need for historians with different intellectual agendas to make their agendas clearer in their writing, and how the history of science, as a small field, has an unusually dense number of agendas–pop history, philosophical/literary studies, advocacy, historical analysis, etc. I would tend to say that the bulk of the history of science most of us read focuses on iconic case studies, which has essentially nailed the field into a case study mode of writing. The tensions created by this mode usually pass without mention making it difficult for a coherent historiography to emerge. And part of the reason for this blog is to think about ways the historiography can start telling narratives again–whether in writing, or by designing classes (which dominates my time, and thus, blog posts these days).

However, I’ve found,that whenever I’ve amicably clashed with historians with different styles and agendas, the result has usually been fruitful. I mentioned yesterday that my TA has this sort of philosophical/literary streak. He can go on for ages about the role of shipwreck in science-related literature, and I think he’s been peppering my students with Augustine even now that we’re into the 1600s. But he’s a great TA, and gives the student a very different view of things. Similarly, I have a pair of papers under review that I wrote with Lambert Williams, who is definitely concerned with philosophy-related issues–“how disciplines develop” and that sort of thing. He has a conference coming up this spring that will include philosophers and art historians and the like on the decoherence of disciplines. I’ve always enjoyed working with him.

But, this enjoyment inevitably results from the clash–you just can’t be exposed to the ideas; there has to be a tension, where you feel that your point of view is actually better than theirs, which is an attitude that is usually frowned upon in my experience in academia. But I find if you trust the person enough to remain friendly with you after all is said and done, you really gain from the experience.

It’s in this spirit that I eagerly await the arrival of our new poster, Jenny Ferng, a grad student at MIT currently residing in Paris, whom I know from my time in grad school. She melds the studies of architecture and science, and definitely fits in the philosophy/literature mold. I don’t think our object is to butt heads here, exactly, but hopefully we’ll get some fun contrast when we both talk (more or less) about the subject of how to write better history, which is what this blog’s all about.

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