Thursday, March 02, 2006
Distinguished Lecturer address delivered at the Forum's annual meeting in November, 2005
The Forum 20 Years Later: Establishing a Creation Story
I am very honored to be selected as the Distinguished Historian by the Forum and to follow in the footsteps of Nathan Reingold and Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, among others. Because this is the 20th anniversary of the formal establishment of the Forum, it seems appropriate to take this opportunity to reflect upon the events of two decades ago. It was a busy time in my life. My marriage, my assumption of the editorship of the Joseph Henry Papers, and the establishment of the Forum all took place within five months of each other. But today I will reflect on only one of these three milestones.In looking back at the founding of the forum, I hope to supplement Clark Elliott’s excellent account of the history of the Forum published in Catching Up with the Vision, the special 1999 issue of Isis commemorating the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the History of Science Society. Using my personal files and somewhat faulty memory, I hope to place the Forum in a different context than Elliott did. Elliott looked at the Forum as a ”promoter of a neglected or developing field.” I see the forum as a symptom or indicator of larger movements in the History of Science Society, at a time when Americanists moved, generally speaking, from the periphery to the center of the Society as the Society itself became more open in both an intellectual and even social sense.The true roots of the Forum are social, in so far as a gathering of like-minded historians at a meeting is a social rather than an intellectual event, may extend back to 1971 and the Northwestern University conference on nineteenth-century American science. Or perhaps, since I was too young professionally to attend the meeting at Evanston, we should consider the pivotal event to be the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston in 1976, at which Nathan Reingold organized a series of sessions on American science in commemoration of the Bicentennial of the United States. Maybe the foundation event was a conversation or a series of conversations among a group clustered around Reingold in a hotel lobby. The truth is, I don’t remember when I first met the other members of what became the founding group of News and Views. Most likely, it took a series of events to enable a group of young historians of, primarily, science in nineteenth-century America to get to know and trust each other, and recognize that they shared a common vision of the history of American science. In any case, it was at the annual meeting at Madison, in 1978, that Michelle Aldrich, Clark Elliott, Stanley Guralnick, Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Ronald Numbers, Margaret Rossiter and I did get together. We shared two important characteristics in addition to our interest in American science: first, we were all relatively junior professionally, a decade or less past our Ph.D.; second we were deeply concerned about the future of our discipline and were willing to work to make it better. Indeed, looking back, what strikes me is how willing over the years we have been to take on responsibilities in the discipline. As many of you know, during what was the prehistory period of the Forum, this group of seven attempted and failed to find funding for a major conference, did establish a newsletter—News and Views, and provided the editorial team and the core contributors for the first volume of the new series of Osiris. And for the details of these activities, I refer you to Elliott’s article.In considering the formal prehistory of the Forum, the years 1978 to 1985, there are two important points to keep in mind. First, the eventual founders of the Forum grew up professionally in a History of Science Society that had viewed the history of American science as unimportant, if not irrelevant. According to Robert Post’s recollection of conversations, Nathan Reingold, A. Hunter Dupree and Brooke Hindle “all had a sense of being shunned by the society.” Reingold claimed that in the early days of his connection with the history of science, the history of American science was a “marginal specialty, often regarded with disdain by mainline practitioners.” The participation of Americanists at the highest level of Society decision- making was limited. Between 1965 and 1984 Americanists held only 20% of all Executive Committee positions. Recognition was also limited. The first president of the History of Science Society who could be labeled an Americanist was Richard Shryock in 1941. The next was John Greene (also a historian of Darwin and hence perhaps more acceptable than other Americanists) in 1975, a gap of thirty-four years. He was followed by Sally Kohlstedt in 1992. Shryock received the Sarton medal in 1959. Not until 1990, over thirty years later, was a second Americanist, Dupree, so honored. Although we did not face as bad a situation in the 1970s as that facing our mentors, I believe the Forum’s founders’ generation was still struggling to get intellectual respect from other historians of science. Indeed, parenthetically, as late as 1984, a historian of physics felt no hesitation in asking me, to my face, why I was wasting my time studying a second rate scientist when there was so much to learn about the leading scientists, no doubt referring to the French contemporaries of Henry he was interested in. And beyond the question of intellectually marginality, there were social reasons why we were marginal. Many historians of American science went to the wrong schools and had the wrong jobs.What do I mean by that claim? The most persistent image of the meetings I have from the 1970s was the announcement of a departmental smoker on a bulletin board. Smokers were and still are informal gatherings of faculty, graduate students, and former students of a particular graduate program. My contention is that the social activities (and many other aspects, such as committee membership, nomination for office, etc.) of the Society seem to have been centered in and controlled by the faculty of a small number of major departments. Those of us, like myself, who came out of American History/American Civilization, and whose advisors were infrequent attendees at the History of Science Society meetings, were distinctly outsiders.What was striking to me then, and is still very striking, is that graduate students and faculty alike in the 1970s seemed to have accepted the premise that a relatively small number of departments represented the entire profession. How small a number? In 1971, Richard French and Michael Gross, two graduate students in the history of science, sought to “satisfy [their] curiosity about the backgrounds, attitudes, and aspirations of fellow graduate students studying the history of science at institutions in North America.” They thought they could do so by surveying graduate students at only 17 institutions. In 1971, this might have been adequate for learning about the characteristics of graduate students studying traditional fields like the Scientific Revolution or Early Modern Science, but the survey badly missed one growing segment of the discipline—students of the history of American science. At the time of the survey, four of the seven historians destined to establish News and Views were still in graduate school. Only one attended an institution that was surveyed by Gross and French. The other three were invisible as far as the Gross and French survey was concerned. I think this invisibility was symptomatic of the larger issue of the social structure of the History of Science Society and the status of Americanists in the Society.I think a second survey, just five years later, reinforces my point. In 1976 a survey of recent Ph.D.s was conducted on behalf of the History of Science Society Committee on Employment Problems and Opportunities. Data was not gathered by asking young members of the Society about their employment situation, which would have given us information about the broad range of young scholars who were members. (I acknowledge that such a survey would have been difficult. I have been trying to construct such data for the Committee on Research and the Profession.) Instead, the survey was directed at the faculty of the major graduate programs in the history of science. The operating premise was that we learn about the profession from the experiences of the graduates of a limited number of programs, not from the experiences of the broader professional community. What was worse, the professor who drew up the survey believed that gathering evidence from only thirteen institutions would be sufficient to gain an understanding of the employment situation of recent graduates in the history of science. Again, one problem with the data was that Americanists did not generally attend these institutions. Only three of the founders of News and Views, for example, had graduated from one of the thirteen. I was a rather dissatisfied member of that committee, but I was unsure of my ground, so I shared the list with Nate Reingold, querying whether he thought the data would be of any use. He agreed with me about the limitations of the survey. In particular, he agreed that if one was going to try to gather data through the graduate departments, the survey left out Americanists. He jotted down the names of an additional fifteen institutions, the minimum he felt was necessary to get a true picture of what was happening on the employment front. When I later gathered bibliographic information on the history of American science and technology, one fact was clear from the distributions of dissertation in the history of American science, a fact that reinforced the issue that Reingold and I discussed in 1976: in the mid-1970s, Americanists were generally being educated at institutions other than those perceived by the leadership of the History of Science Society to be at the core of the history of science profession.Americanists also did not entirely fit the perceived proper profile of employment. The 1976 survey assumed that graduate programs trained “their students with a shared expectation of future academic employment” and focused only on that form of employment. Institutions were asked to divide the data into only two categories: academic and non-academic. The implication of the questions asked the graduate programs was clear. Non-academic employment translated into failure. This time, other members of the committee complained very loudly. Fortunately, the data supplied by the graduate departments was detailed enough for a more sophisticated interpretation. (To be fair, some graduate schools defined academic very broadly.) The committee was able, in the final report, to divide the data between scholarly and non-scholarly employment, with scholarly employment further sub-divided between academic and non-academic. As the committee’s report emphasized, there were demonstrated opportunities for scholarly employment in the federal government, in the corporate world, as a contract historian, or in museums. Not coincidently, such opportunities were greater for those who had knowledge of American history. And such employment, the committee felt, reflecting in part their own personal histories, should not be viewed as some sort of failure, no matter what the graduate departments felt to be the proper goal of their students.My second point is that it is important to remember that the History of Science Society was not a static organization in the 1970s. The prehistory of the Forum coincided with the first stage of the evolution of the History of Science Society “from subscription agency to professional society,” to use Michael Sokal’s phrase. This first stage, which ran from approximately 1970 to the assumption of the presidency by Gerald Holton in 1983, was marked by an increasing awareness of the Society of such issues as employment problems and the status of women. The Society was growing both in terms of membership and financial resources. Hiring practices were changing and there was more open completion for jobs. There was a revolution in the making, and there expectations that the new version of the Society was much more welcoming to Americanists than the old one. However, although many members were eager to embrace a broader definition of the history of science, and hence a more inclusive society, there were still members who looked back longingly at the good old days in which a small group controlled the society.Coincidentally, the first year of Holton’s presidency was also the year the coordinating group of News and Views, now minus Guralnick, who had entered the corporate world, but soon with the addition of Alan Leviton, began the process of establishing a society. I say coincidentally, because as far as I can tell from the correspondence, the coordinating committee for News and Views was not in a rush to take the next step. Elliott, however, precipitated the process in May 1983 when he advised the rest of the group that he would not willing to be editor of the newsletter indefinitely, and suggested that we “have some kind of Society or formally organized group to publish and sustain the newsletter.” In essence, he forced the hand of the group. At the Norwalk meeting, the group agreed that the newsletter had to be sustained—it had proved itself too valuable not to sustain it—and we decided to launch a new society at the Chicago meeting of the History of Science Society in 1984.What is very striking to me in retrospect is that the relationship between the proposed society, eventually to be named the Forum, and the History of Science Society was left very vague. Indeed, the call for a gathering of Americanists at the Chicago meeting issued in News and Views doesn’t say that the intent was to organize a new society. Rather, it was to discuss ways in which there could be ”continuous and broad-based cooperation and coordination of effort among historians of American science.” I have seen no evidence that we had a vision for the Forum. It just evolved.Between the meetings at Norwalk and Chicago, the History of Science Society elected a vice-president, to be president in 1987-88. Some of the News and Views coordinating committee were dissatisfied with the two candidates presented by the nominating committee, and the launched an effort to nomination Nate Reingold by petition, offering as justification the hope of electing an Americanist after a gap of more than a decade (John Greene had been the last Americanist president), and also to have a president who “might add new dimensions to the Society.” Reingold was sympathetic to the Holton revolution, and I for one wasn’t convinced that the other candidates were. The petition succeeded, but William Coleman won the election with a clear plurality, with Reingold and Loren Graham splitting the remaining vote relatively evenly. I have always wondered whether that effort to elect Reingold colored relations with the Society during the next two years. Challenging the decisions of the Nominating Committee was not a common event.Well, back to the Forum. The gathering at the annual meeting in Chicago attracted attention from the leadership of the History of Science Society. President Holton addressed the meeting, arguing against the splintering of the HSS. He even eluded to us in his presidential address, in which he mentioned a “subspecialty group” whose members “think of themselves as specialists first and historians of science second.” His solution was the establishment of divisions within the History of Science Society, modeled after those in scientific societies. After the meeting, Arnold Thackray, the editor of Isis, also raised the possibility of divisions. Thackray’s worries about the splitting of the Society might be linked to the increasing dissatisfaction with Isis among Americanists. The thought of a journal associated with the Forum had been the subject of discussion among the coordinating group for years. In addition there was a journal proposal being developed in the Midwest and another, within the year, on the East Coast and a second in the Midwest. The unhappiness was not because Thackray ignored the history of American science. Between 1980 and 1984, nine of the fifty-five articles published in Isis were clearly on American topics. It seems, however, that the explosion of scholarship on American science was producing more publishable material than Thackray apparently thought prudent to publish. Thackray, after all, had to provide a balance among competing sub-disciplines. The result was a feeling that it was more difficult to be published in Isis if you were an Americanist than in other fields. There were also other pressures for establishing a journal for the history of American science, including the hope of developing possible links between history and policy.In spite of the fears of the History of Science Society leadership, we went doggedly ahead, and at Bloomington formally established the Forum. And the issue of the relationship between the Society and the Forum finally had to be confronted. There were a number of possible models out there. On one end was the model of the Affiliated Societies of the American Historical Association. These societies were separate organizations, which met concurrently with the AHA and had a separate program, but also had joint sessions with the AHA. On the other end were the special interest groups of the Society for the History of Technology. These were informal, self-sustaining and self-identifying clusters of like-minded historians, very loosely regulated by SHOT. Indeed, as Mel Kranzberg warned when asked to comment on the issue of affiliation, “Any attempts to set down rigid rules might lead to all sorts of disputes within the organization, and, as you know, HSS has been prone to more political in-fighting than has SHOT—and that is why our meetings are a lot more fun too.”The response by the Society to the Forum was to establish an ad hoc committee on interests group, which met with Toby Appel and me, representing the Forum, in Philadelphia in February 1986. It was a very positive meeting and resulted in a set of draft bylaws that was, I thought, very responsive to the issues of flexibility and autonomy raised by Toby and me at the meeting. Unfortunately, the Society leadership modified these draft bylaws. The Executive Committee and Council did not listen to Kranzberg. First, the Executive Committee changed the bylaw regarding funds, giving itself veto power over interest group fund raising and expenditures of any funds other than dues. Then Council, at the Pittsburgh meeting, amended the bylaw regarding the provision of services by the History of Science Society to interest groups, changing the word “will” to “may”, and thus opening up the possibility of preferential treatment. In sum, autonomy was restricted and the commitment to the interest groups lessened. The Coordinating Committee of the Forum was already upset with the first change. The second, I think was even more unexpected. At an emotional and spirited business meeting, the likes of which haven’t been seen at the History of Science Society in the two decades since, the bylaws were defeated. Ironically, the rejection of the bylaws was probably the best solution possible. If the Society had adopted these bylaws, it was most likely that the Forum would have formally rejected status as a Special Interest Group. In turn, I suspect that the Society would have ceased to provide meeting space to the Forum. A divorce, on the model of the one with SHOT, was the likely result. Thanks to the defeat of the bylaws, the relationship between the Forum and the History of Science Society was still left uncertain. The advantages of affiliation, at least as the History of Science Society approached it, were unclear, but none of us was quite ready to take the step of organizing a truly independent society.The simple truth was that most of us truly loved the History of Science Society. It had been our primary disciplinary society. I think Nate Reingold expressed in well in a letter he wrote to a senior member of Council about the crisis. After communicating how important the Society had been in his career, he expressed his loyalty to it, declaring, “I am not interested in leading a succession.” But at the same time, he warned his correspondent “the population pressure of specialization can produce strong currents.” Reingold further warned this council member that the changes of language were perceived as an effort by the History of Science Society to establish a “hegemonic framework” for relationships with the Forum and other potential interest groups. Although Reingold did not feel that this was literally true, he counseled that perceptions were important. Reingold included SHOT members as among those who shared this perception of the leadership of the History of Science Society.I received quite a different perspective of what when wrong at the Pittsburgh business meeting in that Council member’s response. (He sent me a carbon copy.) It was quite disturbing. He dismissed the opposition to the bylaws, claiming it was the work of just a few loose cannons, not representing the views of the leadership of the Forum, who tried to bully the business meeting through threats of succession. What was lacking from his reconstruction of the events was any sense that Americanists might have a legitimate grievance. He was oblivious to the possibility that given the marginal status of the sub-specialty in the past, historians of American Science might not want what Reingold called a “hegemonic framework” for their relationship with the Society.By now, I was chair of the coordinating committee, and I spent the next ten months worrying about affiliation, but at the same time convinced that affiliation was probably a dead issue. Why was I so sure? Because there was no word from the History of Science Society. Occasionally, I heard a rumor that the issue was so controversial that it was being left on the far back burner. Being the conservative, busy historian I was, inertia ruled. I was quite willing to continue the status quo. I followed the well-worn path established by my predecessor, Sally Kohlstedt. I asked for, and received a slot at the annual meeting at Raleigh for a Forum business meeting. The informal relationship, neither entirely satisfactory, but not entirely unsatisfactory, would remain. Suddenly, six weeks before the Raleigh meeting, Mike Sokal informed me that the issue was once again alive. Special Interest groups were on the Council agenda, although, interestingly, Sokal informed me that this was done with an eye to “Special Interest Groups that [the Committee on Research and the Profession] hope will emerge in future years.” Officially, the committee report would have nothing to do with the Forum. (Apparently, the letter Kohlstedt sent to the Executive Committee expressing the Forum’s specific concerns about the bylaws was never forwarded to CoRP.) A week before the meeting, I learned that a new set of proposed bylaws had been drafted, and these bylaws were very responsive to the issues raised the previous year. In fact, they much more closely reflected the spirit of the original draft. These were approved by the Society and the Forum formally applied for status as a Special Interest Group.Why the sudden change? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it was not coincidental that the Council which approved the new bylaws, a Council led by Mary Jo Nye, also approved her plan for a committee, to quote the newsletter, “to review and evaluate the Society’s current programs and priorities with an eye to deciding the directions in which we want to move in the future.” The Society was now looking forward, not backward, towards new relationships among historians of science and a new vision for the society. The Forum, too, looked forward towards a new, more formal relationship with the Society.It is safe to say that the field of the history of science in the United States is now an acknowledged part of the history of science and Americanists part of the Society. The fears of those who felt that the Forum might mean the splintering of the History of Science Society have been proven wrong. The Forum and the Society have become intertwined. In fact, from 1990 until 2003, a majority of the Executive Committee members were Americanists and Americanists made up the entire Executive Committee in 2000. What these particular statistics reflect, is not the Americanists are suddenly dominant in the History of Science Society. Rather, many of the highly motivated historians who founded the Forum then took an active part in the now much more welcoming History of Science Society, including Kohlstedt, Rossiter, Numbers, and myself. The history of American science is now just one of a number of significant and active fields in the history of science.For the remainder of my talk, I want to look forward rather than backwards and suggest possible activities for the Forum in the future. Some of you may interpret this as an effort to see how much work I can create for the rest of you.The challenge facing the Forum in the future is to find a mission appropriate for a healthy sub-specialty. I think the challenge can be met if the Forum lives up to its name: to be a forum, that is, a place where historians and their ideas can come together for fruitful exchange.What should the Forum be doing? The first goal of the Forum has always been to facilitate communication, either through the newsletter or in person. Of course, for the Forum, in the beginning, there was News and Views. Our newsletter had two goals: “to exchange news and to circulate views.” It was the latter objective that I want to focus on. Elliott called for “short descriptive or critical articles on methods, sources, interpretations, propositions for general discussion, essay reviews, etc.” He wanted the newsletter to be “a place where ideas can be tried out on colleagues for feedback or for their information, without commitment to a more formal publication medium.” He made it so, and in doing so set a high standard, which his successors, and I was his first successor, have not, I believe, completely met. While I was editor News and Views began to tilt was away from views and towards news. There were a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which was that it was hard work finding opinion pieces. Well, I am here to issue a call, which I haven’t cleared with Daniel Goldstein, to restore the balance. I urge the Forum membership to use its newsletter to be a true forum for discussion. We don’t have many others.At the same time, we should explore how the website and the newsletter could work together. There is a new frontier for societies. Society after society to which I belong struggles with questions regarding the interaction of its website and its newsletter, as well as the issue of electronic publication/distribution of its newsletter. Posting opinion pieces on the website, as opposed to the newsletter, would be much less expensive. Page limitations could be ignored. But how permanent is website publication? How do you archive such material? I would like to see the Forum consider these issues.Personal communication is perhaps even more important than communication by the written word. I was very happy when I read the “Letter from the Chair” in the Spring 2005 issue of News and Views. Yes, networking should be among our highest priorities. Given the size of the annual meeting of the History of Science Society—500 being a moderately sized meeting nowadays--leaving it up to chance won’t work. I think the reception is a wonderful idea. The real trick is coming up with a procedure we can repeat year after year at relatively low cost. But I urge the Steering Committee to try.One possible way to encourage networking is to meet outside the confines of the annual History of Science meeting in smaller, more focused meetings. SHOT calls these boutique meetings. While I was chair of the Special Interest Group in the History of Astronomy, I worked with Michael Crowe of Notre Dame to establish a workshop in the history of astronomy. The workshop meets every other year, on the Notre Dame campus, in the summer. Attendance is open to whoever wants to come. There are both invited discussion papers and the opportunity to offer a work in progress. Forty or more historians, ranging from graduate students to the senior scholars, attend. There is only one session at a time, and lots of time and opportunity for private and group dialogue. It is informal, cheap, fun, and very rewarding. We are very fortunate that Notre Dame offers a small stipend to allow the workshop to invite a senior historian from Europe to join us. I think we should explore establishing the equivalent type of meeting. The primary reason I opposed the bylaws proposed at Pittsburgh was my fear they would forestall the ability of the Forum to raise funds for small, independent meetings. To the best of my knowledge, we have taken little advantage of the opportunity provided by the revisions in the bylaws we made such a fuss over. We should.But I also want to discourage the Forum to do something. Don’t establish a journal. One of the great strength of the history of American science intellectually has been that it has avoided the situation in which practitioners only communicate to each other. Since 1985, Americanists have published in a wide range of American history journals, journals dedicated to the history of specific scientific disciplines, and broader history of science journals. This was brought home again to me last week while I was researching some annotations for The Papers of Joseph Henry. I had to look at Annals of Science, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, and Isis, with a quick peek at a journal of Southern history. This cross-specialty fertilization is important, and we should continue it.Then there is the need for information for our discipline and our profession. The Executive Committee needs information to select appropriate members for committees. The Isis editor needs referees and book reviewers. Scholars need to know who else might be working in specific fields. At one time (are Alan and Michelle here?) we had an outstanding directory, more detailed and more useful than the History of Science Guide. I would like to see us regularly produce such directories, perhaps online rather than printed.Twenty years ago, historians of American science had something to prove. That need to prove something gave them the energy and commitment to construct an institutional infrastructure for communication among and information gathering about themselves. Well, historians of American science no longer have to prove anything to the History fo Science Society. But the need to communicate among ourselves, to gather information for our mutual use, is just as great. That infrastructure, founded twenty years ago, known as the Forum, needs our continued commitment and energy. I call upon you to provide it.From the time of that gathering in Madison in 1978 until into 1996, the Forum was crucial to my professional life as a historian. The greatest frustration I had when I became Treasurer of the History of Science Society was my inability to stay involved in the Forum. Finally, last year, I managed to rearrange committee-meeting times so I could once again attend the Forum meetings. And I was immediately put to work. But that is OK. I have received an immeasurable amount of professional and personal joy from the Forum, although none as great as the pleasure I have received from today’s honor. Thank you.
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