Why STEM can’t answer today’s hard questions

I recently relistened an interview Ezra Klein did with Danielle Allen (Harvard Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics) in 2019, in which they discuss how science, technology, and business differ fundamentally from politics because the former disciplines assume a set of values that are already ordered by priority (efficiency, profit, etc.) but politics is essentially all about the setting and the reordering of those values. That’s why engineering and STEM have a hard time “fixing” politics and a hard time “solving” more human questions (and perhaps even why STEM majors vote in much smaller numbers than humanities majors).

This is something the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief in the years since Klein and Allen’s conversation. On one level, STEM can “fix” the pandemic by giving us miracle vaccines. But that’s only if we assume a set of values that are held in common by the populace (the health of the community, safety, trust in expertise, etc.) If the values themselves are at issue, as they are surrounding COVID-19, then STEM doesn’t have much to offer, at least for those communities (red state voters, anti-vaxxers) whose values diverge from those assumed by STEM.

This suggests, as Allen argues, that we need to rebalance the school curriculum in favor of humanities education, including paying a greater attention to language (the primary toolkit of politics) and civics. It also suggests the need for more humanities within the STEM curriculum—not just the three-credit add-on ethics courses that characterize engineering programs and medical school, but a real integration of humanities topics, methods, and thinking as part of what it means to “know” about STEM.

This is, of course, something that’s especially appealing to me as a historian of science, but it’s something that should be just as appealing to engineers, who like to frame their work as “problem solving.” If STEM really wants to solve the big problems facing us today, it is going to have to start further back, to solve for more than just technical questions, but also for the values questions that increasingly precede them.

Connecticut as Borderland

Anne is from New York City (Stuyvesant Town, on the Lower East Side). I was born in Hartford and raised in Massachusetts. My parents were both raised in East Hartford. When, after living in DC for ten years and with a new baby, we had the opportunity to come to Connecticut in 2010, it seemed like easy way to stay in touch with family to the north and south. For me personally, Connecticut is a borderland. It has been for centuries.

There is a great scholarly literature on borders and boundaries and the ways in which these function — geographically, culturally, politically, mathematically. In Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century, for example, anthropologist James Clifford described the ways in which culture is as much a product of movement across borders and between places and as it is a product of place. Thomas Gieryn has shown how scientists engage in “boundary work,” the work of defining and policing disciplinary and professional boundaries. Mathematics, physics, meteorology, and other natural sciences describe “boundary conditions” in the differential equations they use to model everything from the resilience of building materials to climate change. Humanists and social scientists study how minortized groups negotiate socially constructed boundaries of race, gender, and class.

Connecticut is a borderland in so many of these ways. It takes its name from the river, which divides all New England. The Connecticut River is the central feature of the New England states, more than the mountains on our western and northern borders, and (at least for the past century and a half as the economy of New England has moved away from fishing and the Atlantic trade) even more than the eastern seaboard. It dictates the flow of people and goods across the region. Look at a highway or railroad map and you’ll see that they mirror the north-south orientation of the River: with the exception of the Mass Pike, a relatively new road, there are very few east-west roads in New England. Just try driving from Hartford to Providence, a distance of only 60 miles between two state capitals, and you’ll find that the two cities are linked only by secondary roads. It can take hours, and during that time you’ll realize how much the River divides the Massachusetts bay side of New England from the Hudson River side. You’ll see the same thing if you plan a ski trip in Northern New England. Boston people ski in New Hampshire along the north-south I-93 corridor. New York people ski in Vermont along the I-91 corridor. The Connecticut River forms the boundary between those very similar yet very different states. Long ago New Hampshire and New York even fought a war for control of Vermont, leaving it an independent republic for four years at the time of the Revolution. (It was actually named “New Connecticut” for a time.)

But Connecticut has been a borderland for much longer than that. East of the river was the ancestral territory of the Algonquin speaking Pequot, Mohegan, and Nipmuck peoples who lived along Long Island Sound and the Atlantic coast. West of the river was the borderland territory of the Tunxis and related peoples that separated those Algonquin speaking peoples from the Mohawks and other Hudson River and Great Lakes-centered Iriquois speaking peoples. With European colonization the English and Dutch settled on the same boundary. Hartford started as a far eastern outpost of the Dutch Hudson River colonies only to be usurped by English colonists from Boston. Their journey was made famous by Frederic Edwin Church in his painting, “Reverend Thomas Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness in 1636 from Plymouth to Hartford.” That he labeled what is now one of the most densely populated regions of the United States a “wilderness” suggests just how much of a divide the colonists perceived in land between Massachusetts Bay and the Hudson River Valley.

Frederick Edwin Church, Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford, in 1636 (original at the Wadsworth Atheneum)

Connecticut itself was founded as three separate English colonies, two focused on the East (Connecticut, centered around Hartford, and Saybrook at the mouth of the river) and one focused on the West (New Haven). For the first century of its statehood, Connecticut had two state capitals, Hartford and New Haven, and its legislature split time between the two. Indeed anyone who has lived here knows that Connecticut still has this feeling of a borderland, a place where two cultures meet, where differences are negotiated and where bargains between them are made. People in Fairfield County take the train to New York. People in Hartford drive to work. The Northeast of the state is populated with rabid Red Sox fans. The Southwest, Yankees. My own town of West Hartford sits smack on the border, and sports allegiances vary house to house — this time of year you’ll see a Giants flag flying from one front porch, a Patriots flag from the next. (My own household is likewise evenly split: My younger son and I are Pats fans. My wife and older son are Giants fans. Thank goodness she likes the Mets and not the Yankees.)

Source: Ben Blatt, Finding the True Border Between Yankee and Red Sox Nation Using Facebook Data, Harvard Sports Analysis Collective

Connecticut’s place in the broader cultural imagination also reflects its liminal status. In film, Connecticut is usually portrayed as a place of ambivalence, detachment, and opacity (viz. The Ice Storm and The Stepford Wives). Connecticut’s greatest legends are about people who can’t be pinned down: the Leatherman and Nutmegger.

People from the rest of New England often doubt that we’re part of New England at all, and people from New York generally move to Fairfield County suburbs and Litchfield County farms as a form of “escape.” Like other borderlands: Turkey, Tijuana, Tibet, we are both and neither. We are both New York and New England, but we are also neither, which is probably why there’s so little state patriotism here. We are not meant to be a people, but rather a buffer and trading zone between two much stronger peoples. (Another time, I’ll write about how Connecticut people love to hate Connecticut, something not unrelated to the state’s status as a borderland.)

As I get older I realize that I have always personally felt this way: both and neither. In high school I was both a jock and a nerd, but also neither. Now at work, I’m drawn both to solitary scholarly pursuits and collaborative administrative ones, even though they’re often mutually incompatible and unrewarded. Like Connecticut, I am a borderland, and it suits me just fine.

Briefly Noted for May 27, 2021

I read Zach Carter’s magisterial biography of John Maynard Keynes, The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes. Not only is it a super-readable education in economics and a sweeping history of the 20th century told through the prism of one of its most important intellectual and political figures, it also turns out that Keynes was … VERY COOL. Did you know that he was a core (the core?) member of the Bloomsbury set and close friends and sometimes housemates with Virginia Woolf? How about that he was married to a world-famous Russian ballerina? Or that, even though his economics work wasn’t particularly mathematical, he started his career with a work on probability and exchanged mathematical proofs with Bertrand Russell? The guy was really amazing, and so is Carter’s book.

I also highly recommend Jim McGrath’s article in The Public Historian on Museums and Social Media During COVID-19.

My boys love a Youtuber called MatPat. His real name is TK, and he produces several video series including “Film Theory,” “Game Theory,” and “Food Theory.” In each video, he makes an elaborate, meandering conjecture: how to survive the Hunger Games, how to predict Oscar winners, why Minecraft is so popular, etc., etc., etc. They’re silly, dense with facts, expertly produced, and fun. But one of these videos stands head and shoulders above the rest: How Trump is Winning with Reality TV. Posted in February 2016 — still early in the Republican primary — the video predicts a Trump victory; explains exactly how it will happen based on Trump’s previous career as a huckster, media badboy, and reality TV star; and presages the media manipulation mastery that Trump will use as President to avoid accountability and poison our politics. It’s something only a social media virtuoso with 9 million subscribers could understand so completely: you just gotta watch.

Sourcery: “Disruption,” Austerity, Equity, and Remote Access to Archives

I’ve spent the last 24 hours thinking about and responding to Mark Matienzo’s recent post about Sourcery and its response on social media. I’ve enjoyed engaging in the concerns Mark raises and I’ve learned a lot from the conversation it has spurred. Everything Mark wonders and worries about in connection with Sourcery are things we are actively questioning ourselves. It’s the reason we held a series of workshops with the archives profession this past fall and it’s the reason we’re working with a set of institutional partners to pilot Sourcery while it’s still under active development — so that we can address these questions and concerns in conversation with the community and have those conversations inform the functionality of the application.

These conversations, however, have demonstrated to me that there’s a bit of a misperception circulating, not so much about the app itself, but about the way in which we aim to develop it, a misperception that’s born, I think, more of a learned skepticism of Silicon Valley and university austerity politics than it has to do with a real look at the way in which we’re actually going about things. 

The first thing to say is that we don’t begrudge archivists their skepticism. We share it. A decade that’s seen democracy undermined by social media and labor undermined by “gig economy” apps has made us justifiably skeptical of technology. Likewise, a decade or more of austerity budgets has made archivists justifiably skeptical of “external” “solutions.” But Sourcery is not “external” to these concerns: Greenhouse Studios is based in the library of a state university and staffed by unionized librarians and faculty members. We’re well familiar with austerity budgets, believe me. And we’re not promising a “solution.” What we want to do is engage the field — both researchers and archivists — in a conversation about how some of the technologies of the past decade might be retrofitted to expand access to archival sources. 

Sourcery is not a stealth operation to undermine or “disrupt” archival labor or paid researchers like Uber was a stealth operation to undermine taxi drivers. If it were, we wouldn’t have released a roadmap and half-baked app to the community for comment and reflection in a series of workshops, talks, and pilot projects with institutional partners. (We are very much still in our “planning” phase.) Informed by nearly 20 years of building open source, not-for-profit, community-based software systems for libraries and scholarship, our purpose (and the explicit terms of our funding) has always been to engage the community in a process of conversation and co-creation around alleviating the (sometimes cross-cutting!) pressures of archivists and researchers and then to build something that responds to those pressures. Some may disagree, but I don’t think that just because a technology has been used badly by some means that it’s necessarily bad. Certainly Uber has used peer-to-peer technologies in some very bad ways. But GoFundMe has used peer-to-peer technology in some very good ways (the broader SNAFU that is our healthcare system notwithstanding). Our aim is to work with all the relevant groups to make sure we do the good things and avoid the bad things.

If we haven’t made that clear, that’s on me. This post certainly isn’t intended as defense against unwanted critique or tough conversations.

At the same time, it does offer a challenge to archivists. Just as its incumbent on us to understand the challenges archivists face and to work to meet those challenges in our outreach and our software, the tough conversations must also include an acknowledgment of the fact that the current systems for getting remote access to documents isn’t very good and that it hasn’t kept up with either the possibilities of the available technology or the needs of diverse researchers. The process for requesting remote assistance hasn’t really changed since the advent of email and the simple web forms of the mid-1990s (although the pandemic has complicated that picture). We should acknowledge that existing systems of remote access to non-digitized sources create confusion for researchers who need to learn a new system for every repository they encounter. They create disjointed reference workflows for archivists that can be hard to monitor, allocate within teams, track, record, and report. And their failings cause more visits to the reading room than are probably strictly necessary or desirable for either archivists or researchers. By no means do we want to replace the necessary, sustained, intellectually fruitful in-person exchanges between archivists and researchers and the mutual journeys of discovery that take place in the reading room. But we do aim to replace the unnecessary ones.

Here it’s crucial to point out the perhaps under-appreciated fact that in-person visits are available to only a small subset of the researching population — that is, those with the money and flexibility to make a trip. The same is true of the informal networks whereby friends-of-friends and colleagues’ grad students go get stuff for scholars. Travel and professional networks are a privilege of the rich and well-connected, graduate student labor is often exploited for these purposes, and the “gift economy” whereby junior scholars do uncompensated service on behalf of more senior scholars is insidious. Whether intentional or not, current systems that place an enormous premium on the in-person visit end up providing access on extremely unequal terms. Emily Higgs correctly pointed out on Twitter that Sourcery is responsible for the ill effects of its service, whatever its good intentions. It’s likewise true that—given the possibility of change—the archives profession will be at least partly responsible for the ill effects of the status quo, whether it ever intended them or not. Sourcery runs the risk of creating new inequalities, for sure. But sticking with a status quo that privileges the in-person visit even when it’s not strictly necessary — a status quo that privleges rich scholars and ones with fancy connections and ones with grad students to exploit — runs the risk of perpetuating old inequalities. Not doing something to address the situation is an affirmative choice. That something doesn’t have to be Sourcery … but we should be honest that some things should change.

I’m seriously not trying to call anybody out. I’m just saying that researchers, archivists, digital humanists, software developers, and their funders and administrators need to work together if we’re going to expand access in ways that neither create new inequalities nor perpetuate old ones. That’s the conversation we want to have, and I know the archival profession wants to have, and I’m glad Sourcery is causing it.

Correspondence Course

During the depths of the lockdown in March, I imagined a course for our times that would be completely free of digital technology. I was frustrated with administrative rhetoric that seemed to put means ahead of ends in stressing how best to “go online” over how best to “deliver a quality distance education” regardless of the tools. Like the workman with a hammer for whom all the world’s a nail, the administration had its WebEx and Blackboard licenses and, by Jove, we would use them! Everyone was just trying to do their best, of course, and many administrators and especially experienced educational technologists (who understand better than anyone that delivering quality education over the Internet isn’t just a simple matter of “putting it online”) were just as uneasy with the whole conversation as I was. 

In my frustration and reactionary pose, I thought about what it would look like to “go offline” and deliver a distance learning experience without any digital tools at all. Remembering that the humanities have a centuries-long history of scholarly correspondence — of teaching and mentorship using the tools of pen and paper and the networking technology of the post office or courier — I imagined my first-year graduate readings seminar as a correspondence course conducted completely via the United States Postal Service. It would be a return to the early-20th century correspondence course or even to the culture of Greek and Roman philosophical letters that animated Cicero and St. Paul

In the end, I decided this plan would be untenable. For one thing, it wouldn’t have been fair to my new graduate students. The first semester of grad school is disorienting enough, even more so this year, and my students didn’t deserve being subjects to some kind of retrotech experiment by their professor. It also didn’t help that in August it seemed like the President was trying to sink the USPS to aid his re-election.  

But I kept the basics of the idea, and I have been teaching my DMD 5010: Digital Culture readings seminar as a correspondence course of sorts. Each week, the students are assigned a pen pal and spend the week corresponding by email about the assigned reading. Each pair copies me, along with another student who has been picked as the discussion leader, on their emails. In class the next week, the discussion leader summarizes the correspondence and kicks off the class, which takes place by video conference. 

Maybe it’s the choice of books. Maybe it’s just these particular students. But I have never had such engaged, informed, and provocative seminar discussions in my many years of teaching. Here I have a group of students whom I’ve never met in person, and who, to my knowledge, have never met each other in person, and each week our video sessions run over time with informed, enthusiastic, creative discussion and debate. I barely have to say a word to keep the conversation running. 

I suspect this unprecedented (for me) level of engagement is due to what we call our “letter writing.” Each student is responsible not to me, but to their pen pal, to do the reading, to think hard about its meaning, and to draw new meanings from their partner’s work. They ask authentic questions. And in addition to being deeply in conversation with the readings, the students’ letters are funny, full of personality, and full of care for their fellow students in these difficult times. The fact that each student has, at some point in the semester, engaged in authentic correspondence with every other student, has created a group dynamic which honors the intellectual strengths and weaknesses of each member of the group and the ups and downs of their work and home life. It’s great, and I think it justifies my initial impulse to meet the challenges of distance learning not with more tech, but with less. I may even teach it the same way (hopefully with a few scheduled in-person meet ups along the way) even after COVID-19 is blessedly behind us.

Briefly Noted for November 24, 2020

I just finished Alan Mikhail’s God’s Shadow, an excellent history of the Ottoman Empire told through the lens of one of its greatest leaders, the Sultan Selim, who ruled the most powerful empire in the world (outside of China) in the 16th century. It provides a much appreciated rebalancing of early modern European history away from its usual focus on the rise of the West. My only quibble is that it sometimes veers into confusing more important with more good, i.e. of painting the Latin West as racist and imperialist while breezily sidestepping the vigorous, military expansionism of the Ottomans as enlightened, magnanimous, and without ethnic prejudice. Surely there was plenty of cruelty and violence and debasement of “the other” on both sides of the Mediterrean 500 years ago.

We have an amazing, talented group of graduate student assistants at Greenhouse Studios this year. Check out their self-authored introductions on the Greenhouse Studios blog.

The Sourcery project, in partnership with colleagues at Northeastern University Library, just wrapped up a series of workshops on “Remote Access to Archives and Special Collections.” These brought together archivists and researchers over five weeks to talk about the challenges and opportunities for remote and electronic access to archival collections presented by the current COVID-19 crisis (and, indeed, before and after it). It was a lively, sometimes contentious set of conversations, which really drove home how little researchers and archivists have done to really understand where each other are coming from. We’ll be posting a white paper with findings from the meetings in the coming months. Stay tuned.

Farming in the Suburbs

I write bad poetry from time to time. I use this space to record it. I wrote this one in August, when the days were longer, social distancing easy, and online school a fading memory. Please feel free to skip it.

We got some heirloom kale seeds in March
In egg carton planters seedlings stood ten centimeters in April
Strong sunlight on the window sill, water measured in teaspoons

Now, in August, we eat kale salad
The kids tried kale chips
At home with science and vegetables
Science class long forgotten

Rethinking ROI

This semester I’ll be co-chairing our President’s “Life-Transformative Education” task force, a signature initiative to rethink undergraduate education at UConn. Part of a coalition of similar efforts at other universities across the country, the basic idea of LTE is that an undergraduate education should change (or at least actively reconfirm) the worldview and life trajectory of each and every student at UConn. Our work involves a top-to-bottom rethinking of everything from student advising to internship opportunities to capstone experiences for graduating seniors.

Closely tied to our practical efforts at reforming pedagogy and student care at the University is a broader rethinking of the real value of an undergraduate education and the way that value proposition is communicated to students, parents, alums, and in the case of a state institution like UConn, to the taxpayers and legislature of the State of Connecticut. It seems to me that part of that work entails rethinking how value itself is calculated.

Somewhere along the way, universities, like so many other institutions in our culture, began to measure their impact in strictly economic terms. In making our case to stakeholders (especially purse-string holders) we talk about the economic impact of sponsored research, work force training, and other direct benefits to business. Likewise, at the level of the individual student, there is a strong tendency to assess the value of a college degree in terms of a “wage premium,” or the amount of money a college graduate can expect to make versus a non-graduate (the cover story in this week’s The Economist is case in point.) By this way of thinking, the “return on investment” or ROI of a college education is a simple matter of subtracting tuition costs from the wage premium a student can expect upon graduation.

This is a crude measure of the value of a college degree. Life-Transformative Education suggests that the real value of undergraduate education lies in its capacity to change lives, financially for sure, but in other ways too. Thus Life-Transformative Education demands an accounting beyond the wage premium to determine the true ROI of college.

Trends in macro-economics may provide a guide. Even fairly conservative economists are realizing that simple measures of overall economic growth don’t provide a very useful picture of the success of the overall economy, especially in the face of rising inequality. These economists are moving “Beyond GDP” to count things like people’s health, a clean environment, and unpaid labor like elder care and child rearing, in addition to growth, as a more accurate measure of economic health. New Zealand, for example, now uses a “happiness index,” created from a basket of metrics, to make some policy decisions instead of GDP.

So what should a “Beyond the Wage Premium” calculation of college ROI include? What else should we count? I have a few suggestions, including:

  • the likelihood of finding a job that includes health benefits
  • the likelihood of finding a job that includes parental-leave and childcare benefits
  • future ability to change jobs
  • geographic mobility
  • mental health outcomes
  • domestic abuse rates

What else? I’m sure there’s plenty (on both sides of the ledger) that I’ve left out. Please let me know in comments, and if you’re an economist and would like to work on this, let’s talk.

Briefly Noted for October 24, 2018

Caitlin Flanagan’s eloquent description of how histories, true or false, operate in families (e.g. Elizabeth Warren’s family):

How many times during my childhood did my father tell me that when his grandmother and her sister sailed to America, they had traveled ‘a class above steerage’? I was a Hula-Hooping child of the atomic age, growing strong on USDA beef and Cocoa Puffs. What did I know about steerage? But I knew my father in the complete and inchoate way that a child knows her parent, and I knew he wanted me to understand something important to him and—somehow—to me. I understood the lesson to be: The Flanagans have been down, but they have not been out. ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Joan Didion once wrote. And we tell them inside our families so that something can live within them, some idea or value, some complicated honoring of an elder.

via The Atlantic

Collaboration and Emergent Knowledge at Greenhouse Studios


Crossposted from Greenhouse Studios

Since the 1970s, scholars in fields as varied as sedimentology, ornithology, sociology, and philosophy have come to understand the importance of self-organizing systems, of how higher-order complexity can “emerge” from independent lower-order elements. Emergence describes how millions of tiny mud cracks at the bottom of a dry lake bed form large scale geometries when viewed at a distance, or how water molecules, each responding simply to a change in temperature, come to form the complex crystalline patterns of a snowflake. Emergence describes how hundreds of birds, each following its own, relatively simple rules of behavior, self-organize into a flock that displays its own complex behaviors, behaviors that none of the individual birds themselves would display. In the words of writer Steven Johnson, emergence describes how those birds, without a master plan or executive leadership, go from being a “they” to being an “it.” In other words, emergence describes a becoming.

We, too, form emergent systems. Emergence describes how a crowd of pedestrians self-organizes to form complex traffic flows on a busy sidewalk. Viewed close-up, each pedestrian is just trying to get to his or her destination without getting trampled, reacting to what’s in front of him or her according to a set of relatively simple behavioral rules—one foot in front of the other. Viewed from above, however, we see a structured flow, a river of humanity. Acting without direction, the crowd spontaneously orders itself into a complex system for maximizing pedestrian traffic. The mass of individual actors has, without someone in charge, gone from being an uncoordinated “they” to an organized “it.”

oxford street

Emergent approaches to scholarly communication have long been an interest of mine, although I’ve only recently come to think of them this way. My first experiment in the emergent possibilities of radical collaboration took the form of THATCamp—The Humanities and Technology Camp—an “unconference” that colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and I launched in 2008. Instead of a pre-arranged, centrally-planned conference program, THATCampers set their own agendas on the first morning of the event, organizing around the topics that happen to be of most interest to most campers on that day. Another example is Hacking the Academy, a collaboration with Dan Cohen, which posed an open call for submissions to the community of digital humanists on a seven-day deadline. From the patterns that emerged from the more than 300 submissions we received—everything from tweets to blog post to fully formed essays—we assembled and published an edited volume with University of Michigan Press. A final experiment with this emergent approach was a project called One Week | One Tool. This Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities brought together a diverse collections of scholars, students, programmers, designers, librarians, and administrators to conceive, build, and launch an entirely new software tool for humanities scholarship. Participants arrived without an idea of what they would build, only the knowledge that the assembled team would possess the necessary range of talent for the undertaking. They began by brainstorming ideas for a digital project and proceeded to establish project roles, iteratively design a feature set, implement their design, and finally launch their product on day seven.

The Greenhouse Studios design process similarly provides a space for emergent knowledge making. Greenhouse Studios is interested in what new knowledge might emerge when we allow academic communities to self-organize. We are asking what kinds of higher-order complexities arise when teams of humanists, artists, librarians, faculty, students, and staff are given permission to set and follow their own simple rules of collaboration. This mode of work stands in strong rebuke to what I would call the “additive” model of collaboration that draws resources and people together to serve faculty member-driven projects. Instead, Greenhouse Studios provides its teams with the conditions for collaboration—diversity and depth of thought and experience, time apart, creative tools and spaces—and lets them set their own projects and own roles. At Greenhouse Studios, we’re running an experiment in radical collaboration, exploring what happens when you remove the labor hierarchies and predetermined workplans that normally structure collaborative scholarly projects, and instead embrace the emergent qualities of collaboration itself.