A great resource for early American science

Now that the fall semester is just about done, we can all start putting together syllabi put the finishing touches on courses for the spring. For my part, at Rutgers, I’ll be leading a seminar called “Science in American Culture” (Hardenbergh Hall room A1, W 9:50-12:50). And as I finalize primary and secondary readings and materials, especially in the period of early American history with which I am less intimately familiar, I’ll be very grateful for something that Seth Rockman of Brown University passed on to me a little while back.

At the summer 2014 meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, in Philadelphia, Rockman exercised his societal presidential privilege to organize a plenary on “SHEAR meets STEM”—as in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In advance of the session itself (held at the super-cool Mutter Museum), the panelists had compiled and made available a terrific bibliography of resources, primary and secondary, paper and digitized, for the study of early American science and technology, framed around the categories of STEM.

You can download the bibliography here: https://networks.h-net.org/system/files/contributed-files/shear-meets-stem-bibliography.pdf.The four panelists and bibliographers were Adam R. Nelson of the University of Wisconsin – Madison (who got Science), Nina E. Lerman of the Max Planck and Whitman College (Technology), Ann Johnson of the University of South Carolina (Engineering), and Caitlin Rosenthal of UC Berkeley (Math). Unfortunately, I don’t have the panelists’ individual comments, and I didn’t attend the conference myself (which took place the week my PhD was due).

In his remarks, Rockman acknowledged the anachronism of “STEM” (an NSF concoction from the nineties), but expressed his hope that such anachronism could be put to provocative and productive uses. As he put it, the “current cultural obsession with STEM” should be an opportunity for historians to provide “some historical perspective on techno-utopianism, on neuro-everything, on entrepreneurial research, commodified knowledge, and intellectual property, on instrumental thinking and its social consequences.” It’s another way to connect the study of history to “urgent questions of social justice, environmental sustainability, and the future of humanity itself.”

In fact, as Rockman points out, and as others reflecting on the panel have noted, adopting the categories of S-T-E-M can be a way to subvert them. This is a great point. While asking “how did we get to the present?” is a limiting kind of inquiry in the actual study and writing of history, I don’t think I’m alone in finding that the opposite is true in historical teaching. This is especially true when teaching an introductory course, like the “History of Science and Society, 1500-present” that I taught this fall, in which the class is likely to be filled with non-majors more than majors, and budding scientists and engineers more than little humanists. Starting with Copernicus and Vesalius runs the risk of accidentally telling a just-so story—or a story of historical construction that’s relatively easily grafted onto a whiggish timeline by students unused to historicizing scientific ideas. The most successful moments in my just-concluded class happened when I took a category or concept that the students took for granted, and proceeded to blow it up. The very framing of S, T, E, and M can be used to show how and why each of those terms has come to include some people, practices, and forms of knowledge, while excluding many others. (Here, from Monday’s links, is a piece from December’s AHA Perspectives on History offering an argument that history is integral to the work of the STEM fields themselves.)

That said, one potential peril of using the S/T/E/M tetrachotomy to discuss inclusion and exclusion is knowing how to classify what’s been left out. For instance, I recently read Wieland, a 1798 novel by Charles Brockden Brown, the first professional (full-time, that is) novelist in the U.S. It’s amazing, well worth reading, and completely bonkers: it begins with a case of spontaneous combustion in a gazebo overlooking the Delaware River. The late Jay Fliegelman, in his fabulous and necessary introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, explains the ways in which Brown is addressing questions and terrors of free will, rhetoric and persuasion, and the place and nature of authority in a democracy—concerns which, he compellingly argues, preoccupied citizens of the early republic. As I read the book, and especially when I then read, Fliegelman’s introduction (I recommend that order, to avoid spoilers), it was obvious that this highly epistemologically-interested work should be included in any discussion of early American science. But it’s difficult, though by no means impossible, to figure out where a work like “Wieland” fits on a STEMatic list.

I think that points to a plea Rockman made in his wrap-up—for a home for the list that allows it to surpass its current form, especially but not only the immutable mobility of a PDF. Surely a compilation like this is most powerful if it is flexible, and can incorporate expertise from beyond the panel that created it. What’s more, a bibliography of 18th- and early-19th-century primary sources might very profitably take advantage of the fact that so many of those sources are fully digitized and in the public domain, on Google Books, HathiTrust, and the like. As it stands, the links in the PDF are really valuable, but as far as I know the bibliography still awaits a medium that enables it to integrate those sources—one that makes it more than a list of links, and makes it easlier to recalibrate, reassemble, and experiment with. Perhaps a Zotero group is in order? Until such a format comes about, however, my students will already have the “SHEAR meets STEM” plenary to thank for enriching their spring.

(Thanks to Evan for his advance comments on this post.)


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