HSS 2015: A Roundtable Review

hss_logo_verticalTwo weekends ago, under (surprisingly) sunny Northern California skies, hundreds of historians of science met in San Francisco to share their research, debate central questions in the field, and – perhaps most importantly – spend time with friends, both old and new. Three members of the AmericanScience team were present to take in the sights and sounds of this annual HSTM gathering (and even found time to catch up with each other in the flesh!) After taking a week to digest our conference experiences, we present to you our thoughts on HSS 2015.

As usual, with such as massive program, a single review does not do the conference justice. And so, we opted for a review in the round, providing three perspectives on the meeting. It just so happens that we also focused our reviews on the roundtable, a format not new to HSS but unusually prominent on this year’s program. Without further ado, we begin our spin around HSS 2015 with Evan’s favorite panel of the weekend:


        Evan here. My favorite session this year was a roundtable, “Worlds on Paper,” addressing paper technologies in different disciplines and periods. Before reflecting a bit on what made this particular session work so well, let me give you a rundown of the presenters and their topics.

Ann Blair, on the manuscript notes taken by early modern university students in Paris and Geneva based on dictated courses. Inter alia, Blair showed how conventions of print shaped how students organized their note-taking, even in situations in which the students weren’t working with print books.

 Alix Cooper, on a 17th century paper chart showing the distribution of various species of herbs in the forests of Saxe-Gotha. Out of this source, Cooper conjured a world of paper – correspondence, lists, tables – linking the Duke to low-level foresters and their (likely illiterate) informants.

Andrew Mendelsohn, on the use of case studies and medical libraries in clinical research. Medical science was not only the preserve of first-hand experience, but also of a form of collective life and communication that Mendelsohn calls “library empiricism.”

Staffan Müller-Wille, on the data sheets that Franz Boas and his assistants filled out in conducting anthropometric research in American Indian reservations. Müller-Wille show how Boas used these data sheets to construct populations that enabled him to critique what we typically think of as the framing assumptions of anthropometrics.

Volker Hess, on the use of graphical bars in medical paperwork – both to report the course of patients’ illness in charts and to chart the timetable of duty assignments at the nurse’s desk. The rationalization of labor and the rationalization of illness went hand-in-hand, Hess argues – a paper trace of the refiguring of illness as a form of work.

So we’ve got an excellent cast of presenters presenting on a theme of general historiographic interest across a broad chronological sweep. What made the session work so well as a roundtable, though, was that the presenters chose to divide their session in half. First, we had an hour of ten-minute talks. Then, we had an hour of uninterrupted discussion.

The ten-minute talks were enough to give a pretty detailed view of five different paper technologies and to sketch the social worlds that surrounded them. The hour of discussion allowed for a true roundtable among the presenters and the audience. Other topics are no doubt better addressed in a pure roundtable (I’m thinking of an excellent roundtable on the History of Science & the History of Capitalism from a couple of years ago). What unites such sessions is that, unlike regular sessions, you can’t really dip out of one and into another halfway through.

One could imagine a conference program committee allocating a one or two time slots to “non-conventional sessions” of various sorts, and requiring those who propose the session to describe exactly how they’re planning to use their time. That might open up an even broader range of possibilities and limit the chance that an organizer might neglect to use the session’s time in a thoughtful fashion.


       My favorite session at this year’s HSS was also a roundtable—a venue for discussion that seems to have provoked mixed responses. Friday’s “Why Objects?” roundtable featured five ten-minute presentations on a variety of “things” (the objects/things definition was predictably a hot topic of discussion), although, curiously, all of them were organic things. I was totally intrigued by why everyone seemed to be interested in natural specimens—even though it related well to my own work, I wonder how object narratives change when the objects don’t “push back” as clearly as living plants and animals do. I’m thinking, of course, of Lorraine Daston’s Things That Talk volume, which actually features mostly nonorganic objects. During the roundtable,

Dominic Berry (University of Edinburgh) spoke on “potatoes.” He defined object narratives as doing one of two things: following and/or tracing objects or imbuing objects with meaning. Most object narratives, it seems to me, do a bit of both. Dominic’s work on potatoes is deeply informed by STS—he uses potatoes as time machines of sorts, following them back and forth in time while drawing on “bio-objectification” questions that analyze how organisms are made into objects or artifacts.

Jenny Boulboullé (Columbia University) spoke on “wax,” the most inorganic object of the panel. At Columbia’s Making and Knowing Project, Jenny takes a hands-on approach to classical texts. This talk focused on the wax described in a famous passage from Descartes’ Meditations, re-reading it while looking at the wax as a literal, real, object able to be manipulated. This talk asked a particularly important question—how we might take object-oriented approaches to history when most of our sources are textual.

Jim Endersby (University of Sussex) spoke on “orchids,” the object most closely related to my own research. Jim described how following orchids (which he landed on in a round-about way) opened up a massive array of sources—from accounts of twentieth century symbiotic evolution to science fiction. Interestingly, Jim noted that his work was almost entirely text-based, but focusing on objects led him to entirely new types of sources and processes of knowledge creation. This also raised the question of popularity—of whether object histories might actually be more interesting to general readers.

Nicole Nelson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) gave an exciting talk on “mice” as model organisms. Borrowing from feminist STS discourse, Nicole disputed the notion that mice were “boundary-crossers” or “contested organisms,” which continues, she argued, to privilege human experience. Rather than existing in multiple identities or spaces, the lab mouse experiences all aspects of its life on a continuous, daily basis. Decades of serving as lab subjects have made mice susceptible to standing in for human experience—when Nicole described a typical mouse anxiety experiment, for instance, we immediately put ourselves in the place of the mouse (“would I venture out on the ledge or hide behind the wall?”); this, Nicole argues, places authority back in the hands of Science while continuing to take agency away from the objects themselves.

Finally, Daniel Optiz (DePaul University) talked on “lilies,” or, more specifically, giant lily books. He examined these massive botanical art books as objects in and of themselves, arguing that their physical size mattered a great deal in the nineteenth century. Daniel wondered about the perils of object-based approaches—how focusing on the object might actually overinflate its importance, drawing connections that might actually have never existed.

Overall, discussion in the room was rousing and exciting—Ken Alder, famous for his own object-based histories, asked about the boundaries between specificity and generality in dealing with objects, several people asked about the definitions of “objects” and “things,” especially in translation, and everyone seemed generally interested in the ease/difficulty of studying books as objects versus living things as objects. And, of course, Latour came up more than a few times. Scale was also a major question—do the objects we study need to be on a human scale to work in our narratives? What do we do with, say, an object on the molecular level, or something like climate? Size, it seems, troubles Latour’s actor-network theory, and no one seemed quite sure of what to do with it. The roundtable format was ideal for this discussion, and I’d love to see more roundtables at future HSSes. Other highlights of the conference, for me, were Thursday’s plenary session (a play that brought the social aspects of book history to life, performed by Anthony Grafton, Jenny Rampling, Ann Blair, Frederic Clark, Richard Calis, and Madeline McMahon); Friday’s distinguished lecture, given by Paula Findlen, on Galileo and laughter; and, of course, being in San Francisco itself. I ate lots of good food, climbed a few hills, enjoyed the sunshine, and drank a few Anchor Steams. Here’s to more great sessions, and hopefully more beautiful weather, at future meetings.


      To build on Evan and Elaine’s comments, I agree that the roundtable emerged as the intellectual centerpiece of this year’s HSS meeting. With two prime timeslots dedicated to the roundtables (both Friday and Saturday from 1:30 to 3:30 PM), it was clear that the program committee decide to highlight this untraditional format. The prominence given to roundtables at this year’s HSS contrasts with my experiences at past meetings, such as the American Association for the History of Medicine, where roundtable conversations are often confined to lunchtime sessions, deliberately separated out from the traditional research paper panel format.

There is no doubt that the HSS program committee put together a really exciting and diverse set of roundtables. When faced with selecting a roundtable to attend during the Saturday afternoon timeslot, I found myself struggling to pick just one – a conference cliché, but true nonetheless. The fact that roundtables discourage jumping around between panels is both a drawback and strength of this particular format. On one hand, I was disappointed to miss many of the exciting roundtables, including those that Evan and Elaine discussed above. On the other hand, by committing to one session the audience member gets an opportunity to engage with a theme in a broader sense, and to learn about the research of scholars whose work might fall outside of their usual temporal or historiographical wheelhouse.

On Saturday afternoon, I finally settled on “(In)visible Labor in the Human Sciences,” which was an excellent choice. In four short papers, Jenny Bangham, Dan Bouk, Judith Kaplan, and Laura Stark played with different themes (“Anonymity,” for example, or “Inscription”) as they related to the production of knowledge in the human and biomedical sciences. The overarching concern of all the presenters was to pull back the curtain on the less obvious or potentially invisible labors that go into the production of such knowledge. Bouk, for example, showed us how life insurance companies relied on physicians as well as the public themselves to fill out forms that, in turn, provided the company with the data required for making actuarial calculations. Stark, on the other hand, highlighted the role of bureaucracy, and in particular the massive clinical research effort at the postwar National Institute of Health, in making biomedical research possible. The speakers were rounded out with insightful commentary from Susan Lindee, who posed several provocative questions including the challenge: “Are all scientific projects ghost-written to some extent?,” a question that I am still turning over in my mind.

The panel emerged out of a workshop held on the same topic this past summer at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. This arrangement highlights one of the advantages of the roundtable format: it can be used to continue a conversation across multiple conference spaces. The disadvantage in this particular panel was that the discussion felt a bit asymmetrical in some ways, as the panelists had obviously already thought through the issue from a number of perspectives in a way the audience had not. I didn’t mind this asymmetry, as I found the exchange between panelists to be generative, even if I felt like a late-comer to the discussion. Another advantage of this format is that I heard papers on disciplines outside of my own area of interest, such as Kaplan’s fascinating paper on the making of linguistic knowledge. This range of course, is also possible in the traditional panel format. Friday morning’s panel “Thermometers, Incorporated,” for example, was well-constructed in that it examined the histories of a specific object from a diverse set of historical perspectives.

In discussions with my colleagues, I heard positive reviews of many of the other roundtables, including the panel on “Gender in History of Science Pedagogy.” I think this session, which included nine participants, points to another potentially productive role for the roundtable – bringing pedagogy into the conference fold. A slightly more informal setting creates the space for conversations that might not be focused on research, but that are essential to our work nonetheless. I heard similarly positive reviews for the roundtables on “How Should the History of Science Engage with Political Activism and Social Justice?” as well as “Historians of Science in the Public Sphere,” which were praised for creating a space for historians to discuss these issues in a rigorous setting. Placing these kinds of panels in a prime spot on the program (as opposed to lunchtime breakout sessions) also affirms their centrality for our discipline in a way that I think is really exciting.

So there you have it – AmericanScience’s take on this year’s HSS meeting and, in particular, on the non-traditional roundtable format. We’d love to hear more about your thoughts on the program, and your conference experience more broadly, in the comments below.

And last, but certainly not least, we would like to extend a hearty congratulations to our very own Evan Hepler-Smith, who was awarded this year’s Nathan Reingold Prize for the best original essay by a graduate student in the history of science. Congratulations Evan!!!


One thought on “HSS 2015: A Roundtable Review

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #21 | Whewell's Ghost

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