A Conversation with Christine Keiner, This Year’s FHSA Book Prize Winner
By Anna Zeide
At the 2010 History of Science Society annual meeting in Montreal, the Forum for the History of Science in America awarded its book prize to Christine Keiner for The Oyster Question: Scientists, Watermen, and the Maryland Chesapeake Bay since 1880 (University of Georgia Press: 2009). This exciting work of environmental history and history of science examines the struggle for control of the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster industry over the course of the twentieth century. Christine is an Associate Professor of Science, Technology and Society at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).
I had the opportunity to sit down with Christine in Montreal to talk about the process of writing this book that began as a dissertation, about straddling disciplinary boundaries, and about connecting historical work to contemporary environmental debates. Because I am a graduate student in the process of writing my own dissertation and thinking through many of these very same questions, I found our conversation to be instructive, insightful, and revealing. Christine’s passion and clarity of thought (not to mention her personal warmth) comes through very clearly when she talks about her work.
How did you come to the topic of your book?
It all began with William Keith Brooks, who was a zoologist at Johns Hopkins in the late nineteenth century. My graduate advisor at Johns Hopkins, Sharon Kingsland, suggested I look more deeply into Brooks’s oyster work for a seminar paper I was writing. A few historians, like Keith Benson and Jane Maienschein, had written about other aspects of Brooks’s career, but when I began researching his oyster work, I was amazed to find how he had inserted himself into political debates. This really flew in the face of the image of this objective, lab-based, scientific researcher. He published a popular book in 1891 on oysters that was this early interdisciplinary work, drawing both on biology and political economy to argue for the importance of sustaining the Chesapeake oysters. For over twenty years, he advocated privatizing oyster beds because he thought it would bring prosperity to the impoverished people of the eastern shore. The watermen themselves, though—the people he was trying to help—were against the idea of privatization because it was expensive and threatened many aspects of their worldview. It was the packers, the canners, the Yankee capitalists who would be able to afford the high costs of underwater farming and would therefore gain control of the oyster beds. Watermen fiercely value their independence and being corporate employees was anathema to their self-image.
One of the impressive aspects of The Oyster Question is how well it draws on insights from several different historical disciplines to tell its story. What are some of these different fields you drew on and how did they shape the project?
The book began primarily as a history of biology, with a focus on scientists in environmental politics. I only became acquainted with the field of environmental history after I began the project, and it took me a few years to figure out what that means to bring in those perspectives.
I also started getting into political science. The book looks at Brooks’ and succeeding scientists’ attempts to convince the Maryland legislature to liberalize oyster leasing laws. However, the watermen had a great deal of power because Maryland, like many states, suffered from malapportionment, or unequal representation in the state house. Rural people had more power relative to their numbers, which was especially an issue in the South. In many states, this ended up meaning that rural populations controlled conservation lawmaking. It would be an interesting project for other historians to take up to try to understand how this population distribution issue played a role in environmentalism emerging when it did. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rise of the suburbs came at roughly the same time as the rise of the modern environmental movement.
I also had contemporary politics in mind as I was writing the book. The conversion of my dissertation into the book took over five years, and the book’s last chapter looks at the 1990s through 2009. So, it’s a long sweep of time, coming up to the present. But even so, it’s already outdated because the Maryland legislature has since passed a historic law that changes the terms of opening up the Chesapeake to oyster farming.
Finally, I was lucky to have an editor, Paul Sutter, who directed my attention to specific books in all of these different sub-discplines. Because the book is part of a series on the American South, he directed me to material on agricultural modernization and also on the role of the public domain in western history.
And how did you end up working with Paul Sutter and the University of Georgia Press? What did you learn from that experience of finding a publisher?
There was a lot of serendipity in my getting to be a part of this series. There was a publishing seminar at RIT in 2004, with four editors—from university presses and more commercial ones. After the workshop, each of the editors met with people in the audience for a pitch session. I gave my spiel on the book, just for practice. But it turned out that three of the presses were interested in my project! Georgia offered me a contract two days later. Then, a year later, I got in touch with Paul for his particular series.
I learned from that publishing workshop that editors have to acquire 25 titles or so a year, so they want to hear ideas. That means talking with editors at conference book exhibits is a good thing. You should always be prepared to give that elevator speech, just so you can share what you’re working on with anyone who might be interested.
We talked earlier about your relatively heavy teaching load at RIT. Have you been able to draw on insights from this book in the classroom?
Since we’re in upstate New York rather than the Chesapeake, I usually stay away from the specifics of the oyster case in my classes. But talking about the larger issue of the tragedy of the commons is a major part of the environmental studies classes I teach. My book challenges the idea that the Chesapeake epitomizes the tragedy of the commons. I suggest that the state-funded program of replenishing the oyster beds actually worked out pretty well. It wasn’t a perfect system, of course, because there were tensions and scientists were upset when administrators ignored biological criteria. But it was a compromise that worked for the most part for several key decades.
Your book has so much relevance because it connects so directly to questions being debated today in Maryland politics about how to manage the oyster beds. What kind of responses to your book have you gotten from policy makers or the general public?
I’ve given radio interviews and talks for people in the community. I often begin by showing recent newspaper articles that display no historical awareness—they say that because of the new oyster leasing law watermen are going to have to suddenly give up their hunter-gatherer role. My book shows that oystermen have been evolving away from this image for the last 80 years. The legislature mandated public repletion of the oyster beds in 1927, thereby helping to create a regulated commons in which harvesters acted almost like state employees.
But overall, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from all sides. A waterman called my parents’ house and ended up talking with my Dad for a long time, and told him he thought I’d nailed the main issues in the book. I think that meant more to my Dad than any award I might get.
I’m looking forward to talking more with the Department of Natural Resources, because in their very own literature they say that previous strategies haven’t worked. But this isn’t true. There have been sustained harvest strategies for the last century. Between the 1930s and 1980s, they were harvesting 2-3 million bushels of oysters per year. Now, it’s more like 25,000 bushels per year. But the goals have also changed. Today, the goal is 2-3 million, but during those earlier decades, the goal was 10 million, which is just an unsustainable expectation set in the nineteenth century. So I hope I can make people in the broader policy arena realize that a lot of people have been dealing with these questions for a long time. We can’t always apply the same solutions, but it’s important to realize that there are many different stakeholders. We shouldn’t assume that one group was wronged, that scientists never had any input. The political process is always about compromise, and it’s most frustrating to see cases in contemporary politics where neither side wants to back down and so there is an impasse.
What’s the next project you’re working on, and how, if at all, did it emerge from your first book?
In my next book, I’d like to continue my broader goal of contributing to marine environmental history and explicating the “political role of scientific expertise” (Stephen Bocking’s phrase) by examining Cold War debates over building a sea level Panama Canal, something I kept coming across in my Smithsonian research for the Chesapeake project. Some scholarly work has been done with respect to efforts to use nuclear explosives to build the waterway, but I’m more interested in the concern about nonnative species crossing between oceans, and how the specter of invasive species was raised in the 1960s, a generation before zebra mussels in the Great Lakes brought the issue to a national audience.
To close, do you have any advice for me or other young scholars informed by the process of writing your book?
Well, because I know you’re writing about the history of canning, I’d encourage you to look at a couple of books on canning in the eastern shore. There were many issues over labor in oyster canneries in the Chesapeake that would be interesting to look at.
More generally, I’d suggest not trying to make your dissertation perfect. There’s a lot you’ll have to redo anyway. Even after my first manuscript, which was itself a huge revision, I still had to go back to archives for more research, five years after the end of grad school. Be flexible in realizing your thinking will evolve over time. Dissertations and books have very different purposes and with very different audiences. The former shows your committee that you can do original research, while the latter is a broader story for a large audience. Publishing is such that we can’t write specialized monographs anymore, so it’s good to be thinking at the dissertation stage about the broader impact, but also to recognize that it’s important to finish the dissertation, and not get caught up in making it perfect.
Anna Zeide is a PhD student in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is working on a project about the history of canned food in America, which explores the various forms of expertise that shaped how American consumers began to see industrial food products as a safe, reliable, and desirable part of their diets