Category Archives: conferences

Field Report: ESEH Graduate Student Summer School

I was lucky enough to spend four days this past July in sunny Porto, Portugal, where I participated in the European Society for Environmental History’s graduate student Summer School. The theme this year was “The Sea as a Whole: Ideological Resource and Environmental Concerns.” The conference brought together a truly fantastic group of young international scholars whose work all relates in some way to the ocean.  As an American, the school was particularly useful as a way to see how environmental history is defined and pursued in various academic and national settings. 
Summer School students and faculty on a field trip to the Maritime Museum of Ílhavo. (Photo courtesy Elke Ackermann.)

 The meeting kicked off with a plenary lecture by Dolly Jørgensen, current President of ESEH, on the politics behind “rigs-to-reefs” initiatives. Rigs-to-reefs are programs that turn decommissioned offshore oilrig structures into artificial coral reefs. Dolly examined the fate of these initiatives in three places: the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, and off the coast of California. Drawing on the work of John Law and Annemarie Mol, Dolly looked for the enactment of nature in each case to show how the implementation or rejection of these initiatives was contingent, at least in part, on what the different actors involved (environmental groups, trawler fishermen, recreational fishermen, etc.) took as ‘natural.’* Dolly’s STS approach to ocean history was just one of many modes of analysis that emerged during the meeting and, taken as a whole, the scholarship presented at Summer School demonstrated the multiple analytic valences and registers that a field like ocean history affords scholars.

A rig-to-reef structure in the Gulf of Mexico (Times-Picayune Archives)

To explain, I’ll flag a few of the junior scholars’ presentations that I found particularly provocative.

The first was Anna Wilson of the University of Melbourne’s talk, “Uprooting Melbourne: A Story of a City as Revealed by Trees.” Anna’s project decenters the human side of Melbourne’s history to foreground the multiple cultural meanings that trees took on at different moments in the city’s past. Oceans make an appearance in her work as a mode of transport: in the nineteenth century, tree seeds and saplings destined for the burgeoning Melbourne timber trade were brought via ships from Britain. This manifestation of the ocean in Melbourne’s history is part of the larger motif of temporality that undergirds Anna’s scholarship. Though it may seem self-evident, transporting, growing, and harvesting trees take time. Anna’s scholarship reminds us that environmental change is always a process, and that attending to the temporalities of a landscape can often reveal surprising changes in the kinds of value ascribed to both built and natural environments.

 “The History of the Galapagos Islands as a World Heritage Site,” a project presented by Elke Ackermann of the Institute of European History Mainz / JGU Mainz, was particularly resonant with the historians of science in the room, as the campaign to designate the Galapagos as a World Heritage Site intersected with several key events in the history of the natural sciences: the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), the 1959 Darwin Centennial Celebration, and the nascent environmental movement of the early 1960s. In her talk, Elke explained how the Galapagos at this time were cast as a “laboratory for global concepts of nature protection,” as it became a site where a number of biodiversity protection initiatives were executed for the first time.** The case of the Galapagos is an early example of how local environmental politics in the twentieth century became deeply entwined in trans-local ideas not only about wilderness preservation, but about global cultural and historical heritage. (In this case, for example, Western science’s collective memory of Darwin’s relationship to the Galapagos lent a particular urgency to conservationists’ work there.)

Craig Venter, a polarizing figure in oceanic property debates. (
Finally, in “Anything under the Sea: The Ownership of Life in the Oceans” Alyssa Battistoni of Yale juxtaposed history of science with political theory to historicize recent intellectual and territorial property claims over living and natural resources of the sea. At the heart of these legal cases are differing notions of how to define the ocean: Should it be seen as a global commons or a place where the free market reigns? Alyssa’s scholarship demonstrates the multiple scalar levels that debates about oceanic territorial divisions can assume—from the oceans themselves to the seafloor to the natural objects that reside in the sea down to the very genomes of these creatures.

I left the meeting with the sense that it’s an exciting time to be working on ocean history. As Naomi Oreskes noted in her recent contribution to the Isis Focus section, “Knowing the Ocean,” ocean history has the potential to speak to a number of contemporary concerns: globalization, industrialization, climate change, human migration, etc. As evidenced by the scholarship presented in Porto, ocean history is also rife for engagement with the allied fields of anthropology, animal studies, political economy, and post-colonial studies, to name just a few. In short, ocean history promises to be a stimulating field to watch as historians of science continue to take it up. Congratulations to all the participants, and here’s to continuing the conversation! 

*I find this concept of ‘enactment’ useful as one way to move beyond debates about the nature/culture divide that so often arise in environmental history.

**As an aside, a recent RadioLab episode on contemporary biodiversity conservation debates in the Galapagos neatly complements Elke’s historical analysis.

History of Medicine, For Human Dignity

An announcement for this conference on the history/memory of the Tuskegee experiments caught my eye in part because it aims higher than do most (and reflects on its use of history more explicitly than is usual). For instance:

Our purpose will not be to engender shame or guilt. Rather we will maturely enter into the realities of the past so as to re-imagine a deeper sense of human care in ourselves today, and thereby build a future never again marred by a holocaust of any kind. This conference will be a rich moment in time to prevent the worst by promoting the best of who we are and what we can do to protect the dignity and respect that is fundamental to being human.

I cannot tell from the agenda (pdf), however, the true degree to which it will be historical in nature. At any rate, offered for your consideration.

Looking at Science

I don’t spend much time thinking about science and images, but I know I should spend more. Two pieces of evidence.

1) This collection of atlases: “Places and Spaces: Mapping Science” — I suppose these are the sort of things that Daston and Galison analyzed in Objectivity, but with a bit more reflexivity (since many seem to be science studies-oriented; also, that rhymed). Unfortunately, the Web version doesn’t allow for close up looks of intriguing maps like this and this.

2) A recent CFP from the University of Rochester for “Image, Truth, and Distortion,” a grad conference:
“The term “image” is broadly construed: images from any time period and of every variety from political cartoons to frescoes to digital photography, as well as literary, biographical, metaphorical or mental images, are acceptable subjects of investigation.  Ideal submissions should explore the ways in which images have been used throughout history to reflect, refract, or even reinvent truth in regards to people, events, ideas, movements, cultures, or time periods, as well as how these images  have been embraced or contested.”

Those of you who work more with images, maybe you can figure out something to do with these digitized exhibit guides from the gilded age. They seem useful, and yet…

Save the Date for the 47th Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology

The 47th Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology will be held at the University of Pennsylvania, beginning with an opening reception and plenary the evening of Friday April 20th, followed by the presentation of papers, a faculty panel, and a dinner on Saturday April 21st.
Events will primarily take place in Claudia Cohen Hall, located at 249 South 36th Street, between Spruce Street and Locust Walk, on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia.
Abstracts (200 words) of papers submitted for presentation are due by Wednesday February 1st, 2012 at 5pm, and can be emailed to Andy Hogan at: . Decisions on submitted abstracts will be made as soon as possible, and the chosen presenters will be informed on or about March 1st.
Some travel support is available for graduate student presenters.
Hope to see you there!

JAS-BIO, Evolving

A few weeks ago, Henry, Lukas, and I all traveled to New Haven for the 46th meeting of the Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology. Many of today’s leading scholars in the field gave their first papers at the conference and it continues to be a welcoming forum for junior scholars to share works-in-progress.

It has become a tradition to include a citation on the back of the program to a short essay on the history of the meeting by Mary P. Winsor, published in Isis in 1999. In that piece Winsor points out that the spirit upon which the conference was founded and perpetuated in the early years was not, in fact, professionalization. It was to provide a “stimulating day of friendly intellectual exchange.” What makes the JAS-BIO an important gathering is that it serves as a space where people from many generations can think together about why and how we do what we do. In my own experience, it has been a particularly important opportunity for me to learn from my peers.

The event began Friday night with a talk by medical anthropologist Marcia Inhorn, who spoke about her research on assisted reproductive technologies in Muslim countries. Her ethnographic research, and the lively discussion that followed her presentation, appropriately foreshadowed a conference in which it became impossible to ignore the evolution of history of biology. By this I mean that the participants at this year’s meetings unabashedly pushed the conceptual and methodological boundaries of the field, seeking to engage with history of technology, industrialization, philosophy, etc.

On Saturday, three quick sessions took us from 19th century collecting to Cold War psychological research, to philosophical, religious, and social legacies of Darwinism.

Lukas Rieppel and Courtney Thompson each articulated novel commercial aspects of 19th century natural historical collections. Rieppel presented work from his dissertation, which (forgive me if I’m overstating the case) situates museum-based vertebrate paleontology as a site for reinterpreting broader processes of industrialization. By focusing on the assembly of museum collections he encouraged us to consider the interrelationship of railroads, robber barons, and philanthropy as fundamental to American cultures of capitalism. At a different register, Thompson’s paper oriented us towards the home, where children were instructed, through books on natural history, to establish their own collections. Many of us who do history of biology index early such experiences as influential (for me, it was visiting the American Museum of Natural History). Thompson’s research also raised questions about the material legacies of the books themselves – they have become collectors’ items in their own right.

Nellwyn Thomas and Brian Casey explored the ways in which psychological research during mid-20th century reflected shifting notions of human potential and pathology. Thomas took us to the ocean floor in her account of the interplay between marine biological and psychological research at the underwater Tektite experiment station. Beyond giving us insight into practices of standardization that enabled the rich, otherworldy experiences of aquanauts (those marine biologists who lived in the aquatic environment for weeks on end) to be rendered statistically, Thomas’ paper tracked the mutating status of the human at mid-century. Casey, in his account of psycho-surgical research during the Cold War also pointed to the question of what it means to be human. Casey’s project, part of a collaborative endeavor, emphasized the role of technology in psychological research. The history of 20th century biology has much to gain from a deeper engagement with technology. We have only just begun to pay attention to the consequences of technological intervention at the register of the biological.

As a panel, David Crawford, Stephen Dilley, and Myrna Perez offered us a kaleidoscopic portrait of the legacy of evolutionary thought. Their respective talks considered the material cultures of scientific publication as well as issues of theology and contemporary public intellectuals. Crawford, a philosopher, demonstrated the productive intersections of the history of ideas with attention to practice and material culture. His talk focused on the discrepancies between Lamarck’s printed work and his intellectual intentions. Dilley, also a philosopher, trained his attention on the religious content of Darwin’s work. By putting theological concerns on a par with ‘scientific’ content, Dilley’s paper was an implicit (and perhaps ironic?) reminder of the merits of a symmetrical SSK-style approach. Working in the 20th century, Perez described her efforts to view debates about evolution through the life and career of Stephen Jay Gould. This is a bold effort to consider the role of evolutionary biologist as public intellectual during a tumultuous period in American history. Commentator Janet Browne rightly commented of the three papers in the last session that the study of Darwin and his influence continue to generate explanations of how we order our world.

The day ended with a rather sobering conversation about the state of the field and prospects for jobs (see here). Much ink has been and will continue to be spilled over these problems. However, for today, I want to conclude this particular post with an unambiguously positive sentiment. JAS-BIO has always been a place to enact the life of the mind and I left this year’s meeting in awe of how much we – as junior scholars – have to learn from each other. Thank you…