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A Tale of Two Syllabi: The Grad School Origins of Ether Wave Propaganda December 27, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Chris Donohue and I recently responded to some questions posed by the animateurs of the Carnet Zilsel blog (part 1, part 2). Subjects included the origins of Ether Wave Propaganda, the virtues of “heuristic” blogging, the relations between STS and the history of science, and the forms that historiographical discussions do and do not take. And, on January 1, this blog will have existed for seven years, which occasions some reflection.

Also, having finished work on my book, I’ve been bringing order to my file cabinet, and came across some old grad school syllabi. In the Carnet Zilsel interview I described the origins of EWP as a reaction to the tendency of the professional literature to “fragmentation.” However, the methodological reflection that has characterized this blog, particularly up to 2012, is certainly also of a piece with the kinds of discussions that we had in grad school, in my case in the Harvard History of Science department.

I’d like to explore this continuity with a discussion of two syllabi of particular interest:

History of Science 200: Methods of Research in the History of Science, taught by Everett Mendelsohn in the fall of 2002, and required for all first-year students.

History of Science 255: Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, taught by Steven Shapin in the spring of 2004

I suspect the “Methods” course is fairly typical of methodological instruction in history of science courses across North America and the UK. It essentially entails meditation on a series of readings selected for their ability to evoke important points of historico-epistemic debate, rather than to systematically survey the methods available to historians, as such.

What the content of the “Methods” syllabus makes clear is that the idea that broad discussions of “epistemic” problems are critical to history-writing methodology is inculcated in PhD students from the earliest moments of their training. It further implies that any further methodological problems we might detect can be traced to historians’ varying positions on these same problems, and, therefore, that any further discussions we might want to have should return to them.

This was certainly the spirit in which Ether Wave Propaganda was created. It took a large number of posts before I understood, first, that historians’ methodology might not be so intimately linked to their epistemic proclivities, and, ultimately, that the idea that methodological reform arises from methodological meditation is constitutive of the very historiographical culture that one might hope to reform. The implication is that methodological discussion is self defeating.

The obvious alternative is to simply go out there and write, never mind the navel gazing. I’ve never found this option satisfactory because it doesn’t address the underlying problem of whether the literature coheres, and whether it is well-balanced, and, for that matter, correct.

It is clear to me that, even if we stop talking about them, the “Methods” course materials do matter. Another feature of the “Methods” syllabus I would draw attention to is that these are difficult, often opaque, often long readings that existed as part of a broad conversation within the history of science. For those that address particular historical issues, they engaged with an existing historiography with which we were not familiar.

Everett, I recall, encouraged us to go out and look up reviews, and to try and put these readings inside of those conversations—he was very fond of fomenting discussion and debate. Nevertheless, it seems to me that, with limited time available to us, we were not well equipped to digest these readings, especially those of us, including me, with no major background in the history of science. As a consequence, we developed coping mechanisms, which those of us who had done master’s degrees had already developed.

First, we learned how to have reasonable-sounding discussions about the readings, which focused primarily on the broad epistemic issues, since we didn’t have a good grounding in the historical subject matter. This significantly reduced the burden of paying close attention to each page of the sometimes-hundreds of pages of reading we had to do each week for this and other classes. (In my annotations, you can see me tallying up the reading burden each week.)

Second, we trusted in the wisdom and the benevolence of the people who had selected these readings, so that we accepted that these readings reflected the most important methodological issues confronting us. (I remember taking Everett’s advice to read Latour’s “Irreductions” before “War and Peace of Microbes” and being temporarily brought to psychological ruin by the experience.)

Third, with limited time for reading, I think it gave us a marked preference for reading new, up-to-date literature, and not bothering to pay quite as much attention to older works as we perhaps should have.

As a consequence of our coping strategies, we would have readily absorbed certain takeaway points. Straight away, from week 1’s reading of Peter Novick onward, we would have been introduced to our new enemy: those people with naive ideas about objectivity, in history and in science alike. We would not have appreciated the degree to which the readings heavily reinforced the dominance of a certain school of thought in science studies that had taken root about a decade prior, with Thomas Kuhn representing the more old-fashioned point of view. Further, we would have been well primed to dismiss methodological challenges as remnants of antiquated schools of methodology.

Even if we engaged in no further methodological reflection, these sorts takeaways would have informed what aspects of history we thought it important to highlight in our own work, without necessarily worrying about how our various works might fit together.

The only way to move beyond that model would be to mine the existing literature for gains, and to create a thriving, integrated alternative historiography. It would be a difficult task.

My primary memory of Everett, by the way, is of a warm, energetic, and highly supportive professor. Here’s a recent YouTube video, which I think nicely captures his personal style.

In 2004 Steven Shapin arrived at Harvard from UC San Diego. I took the opportunity to take a course that he offered in SSK, which covered similar epistemic issues. In fact, I believe that Shapin eventually started teaching “Methods.”

What I liked about this course is that it was more systematic, and placed the material within the ongoing conversations of which they were a part, so that you got a better sense of the authors’ motivating concerns. Of course, there was still a level of indoctrination involved. I remember saying something favorable about Robert Merton in an early discussion, and having it made clear we were reading him as a foil and that I was not being as critical as perhaps I should. (Of course, Shapin himself has written favorably on Merton.)

Here’s a video of Shapin:

Incidentally, I also remember that, later, the faculty had a meeting on curriculum reform, and invited grad students to participate. I suggested that I liked Shapin’s approach. The response from a professor I like a great deal was that there simply wasn’t time to go back into the history of all the things we were reading. I, of course, appreciate the practical problems involved, but also remember that that didn’t seem to me to augur very well for what we were trying to do as a field vis-à-vis science!

Anyway, what I took away from Shapin’s course was that the history of methodological discussion is as informative as the methodological discussion itself. And, that, in my memory, is a clear origin point of the thinking that eventually led to this blog.

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1. Whewell's Ghost - December 30, 2014

[…] Ether Wave Propaganda: The Tale of Two Syllabi: The Grad School Origins of Ether Wave Propaganda […]


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