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The Toronto Blog Collective September 9, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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History of Science departments have a record of abject failure when it comes to maintaining a thriving presence in online discussion.  University of Pennsylvania’s Logan Lounge was a pioneering departmental effort, but soon sank into posting semesterly updates of upcoming colloquia, and, after 2008, stopped doing even that.  The University of Minnesota program has also given it a go, but never got things going very well (I expect more from my hometown Golden Gophers!).  University College London apparently could not secure state funding and the support of local workers for the construction and maintenance of its STS Observatory.  The University of Oklahoma’s Hydra journal died quietly soon after creating a site with professional-looking graphics.  Ostensibly having an entire department dedicated to the task of maintaining a blog should make it easier for everyone — I know I wish I had more backup! — but this is apparently not so.  Tragedy of the commons, or something, I guess.

Libraries, archives, and museums have a much more impressive record.  Oregon State’s Pauling Blog continues to amaze me in its ability to churn out quality material on a single person week after week.  The Copenhagen Medical Museion keeps a steady hand on the wheel of its discussions of material culture and public presentation in the biomedical domain.  The Wellcome Library blog is excellent, and the Royal Society is off to a good start as well.  My employers, for lack of planning, did not fare so well.

Now there is blogging fever at the University of Toronto.  Three students have started blogs: Jai Virdi, Aaron Sidney Wright, and Jonathan Turner.  In addition, there is a new group blog, The Bubble Chamber, which aims to address a broader audience about matters of public interest.  EWP wishes this new cauldron of effort well, but will observe that keeping a consistent blog requires either a deep well of subject matter to make public, or a willingness to grow in one’s ideas with time.  History of Science scholarship encourages us to think that, by our capacity as people dedicated to the study of science and technology, we have the additional capacity to see-and-commentate at will, and that this ensures both good historiography and our value to the public sphere.  A line of dead blogs (and declining blogs that will remain nameless) suggests we think we have more ideas than we really have.  (Also: no whining about work loads — blogging should always augment your work, not distract you from it.  Blogs should maintain an individualized pace and format appropriate to that task.)  Toronto: the spotlight is on you.

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Comments»

1. Mike Thicke - September 9, 2010

Hi Will,

Thanks for your plug and cautionary advice!

I think we have a few things going for us at The Bubble Chamber which give us a better chance of success than previous efforts. First, we aim to expand beyond the confines of our department as rapidly as possible. Our hope is to draw contributors from throughout the HPS community. This should help us to achieve a critical mass that would be difficult to reach if we kept it as an in-house project.

Second, the students in our department have been producing the online journal Spontaneous Generations (http://spontaneousgenerations.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/SpontaneousGenerations) for four years now to great success. Many of us on the blog are veterans of Sponge and we’re borrowing a lot from our experiences there.

Finally, I think the timing for this is perfect. There is a forthcoming issue of Synthese on “Making Philosophy of Science More Socially Relevant” edited by Katie Plaisance and Carla Fehr, and there was an enthusiastic discussion of engagement on HOPOS-L recently. HPS scholars want to be more engaged and we give them a way to do that.

2. Will Thomas - September 9, 2010

Thanks for the comment, Mike — I didn’t know the close connection to Spontaneous Generations (which I should, of course, have on my “Relevant Websites” list. The omission will be duly corrected). That experience clearly gives you all a leg up.

I very much want you all to succeed where others have gone in with perhaps more aspiration than commitment, and am eager to see what you are able to do with the new blog. I’ll be an avid reader.

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7. The Toronto Blog Collective (via Ether Wave Propaganda) « From the Hands of Quacks: The Official Weblog of Jaipreet Virdi - September 12, 2010

[…] Comment! Thanks for your cautionary advice, Will. Indeed, there is a great wave of interest in blogging in our department, and I suspect a large part of it has to do with us (finally!) finding a firm footing in our research and striving towards building our future careers. Blogging provides us with a forum to not only express and share our research and thoughts on HPS issues, but also to communicate with academia on similar issues. History of Science departments have a record of abject failure when it comes to maintaining a thriving presence in online discussion.  University of Pennsylvania's Logan Lounge was a pioneering departmental effort, but soon sank into posting semesterly updates of upcoming colloquia, and, after 2008, stopped doing even that.  The University of Minnesota program has also given it a go, but never got things going very well (I expect more from my hom … Read More […]

8. Will Thomas - September 14, 2010

Holy cow. This got a lot of hits.

Anyway, I have not listed all blogs being run out of Toronto either here or on the right. Some are more personal blogs, some are more philosophy or current events than history, and some I may just be neglecting. Fuller lists can be found at think deviant, and Boffins and Cold Warriors.

9. Jakob - September 21, 2010

History of Science scholarship encourages us to think that, by our capacity as people dedicated to the study of science and technology, we have the additional capacity to see-and-commentate at will, and that this ensures both good historiography and our value to the public sphere.

Isn’t this an attitude inculcated by an academic training in general though, rather than a history-of-science-specific issue?

I also think that the comment about whining is a little harsh (although that may just be a guilty conscience!) My blog has just lain dormant for six months, and a large part of that inactivity was due to the pressures of the ‘real’ world. I greatly admire consistently prolific and intellectually rigorous blogs such as this one, and wish I could emulate them, but when my time and energy is limited, I’d rather engage constructively with the ongoing discussions on them than produce rubbish on my own.

10. Will Thomas - September 21, 2010

Thanks for the comments, Jakob. You’re probably right on HoS vs. academia in general. Though I do think there’s a particular form to the HoS-STS interjection in various science-related issues, mainly relating to a kind of privileged maturity with regard to science & technology affairs, which is presumed not to be widespread. More on this in an upcoming post.

I myself am currently in the midst of my move to London, so that post will be delayed until I’ve settled in over there.

Real world pressures and crunch-time difficulties, or even the general need for a hiatus, I think are totally legitimate excuses to pause in blogging. The difficulty is determining when we start declaring ourselves too wrapped up in our work to partake in the discussions that ostensibly make that work worthwhile. I’ve found this to be a problem in scholarly life in general, not just with blogging.

If doesn’t want to do one’s own blog, I think being an active commenter on others’ is a really fine substitute. Serial commenters are one of the joys of blogging. Thony C was an all-time great serial commenter before starting the equally great Renaissance Mathematicus.

Of course, my comments on this particular post were mainly thought of in the context of group or institutional blogs, which should be easier to maintain. When one member gets bogged down, another can step up. On that note, thanks to Chris D. for continuing his exploration on the human sciences while I’m in a logistical whirlwind.

11. Thony C. - September 22, 2010

Thony C was an all-time great serial commenter before starting the equally great Renaissance Mathematicus.

I’m blushing!

12. Jakob - September 22, 2010

I think your point about the scholarly contribution is a good one. Pondering it further, I think that a good department culture might in some sense be antithetical to blogging; there have been times where issues that I might have mused aloud upon on the blog have been hashed out in conversations with my peers in the department or in a reading group to the point where blogging would seem otiose.

Good luck with the move!

13. Curtis Forbes - September 23, 2010

I’m glad to see that the now dubbed “Toronto Blog Collective” is being so well received, but I just wanted to note that the IHPST is actually an amazingly tight department, especially in the non-virtual world. Jakob may be right that blogs and good departmental culture are antithetical in general, but we are a good counterexample to any claim that such a negative correlation is universal. We hope The Bubble Chamber will actually augment our department’s culture, and so far it seems to be working well.

I’d also like to plea for more otiose blogging! I’m not in your reading groups, Jakob!

14. Will Thomas - September 23, 2010

Just arrived! Only lost one bag of four in transit!

Anyway, the point about blogging/dept. culture is an interesting point. Being at AIP, I wasn’t in a department, per se, so blogging was a good outlet for ideas that otherwise would have remained undeveloped. That said, I was in close collaboration with Chris Donohue at the University of Maryland for about a year, and there were times when this blog seemed to be cream skimmed from the surface of our conversations.

I’m curious to see how my blogging here will change now that I’m at Imperial, which, from when I was here before, I remember for its really good departmental culture.

15. Jeremy - October 4, 2010

Advances in the History of Psychology, which has been in your blogroll for years, is also based in Toronto.

16. Will Thomas - October 8, 2010

UCL’s STS Observatory seems to be going again after a half-year absence. There is recent discussion of the Times’s list of the 100 most influential people in UK science policy.


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