Princeton and MIT Days of Engagement and Action

by Elena Sobrino (MIT) and Richard Spiegel (Princeton)

In the early New Year of 2017, student groups at Princeton and MIT asked faculty, staff, students, and university affiliates to suspend normal activities on March 8 and April 18, respectively. Organizers asked university communities to participate in inclusive, intensive dialogue about urgent matters of social, political, economic, and environmental concerns. Self consciously modeled on the 1969 March 4th movement, which started at MIT before spreading across university campuses, event organizers proposed a work stoppage as both a symbolic and practical occasion to renew the communities’ commitments to civic engagement. Organizers asked members of the Princeton and MIT communities to host and participate in dynamic and open fora organized around the themes of human dignity, promoting critical awareness of government policy, and the ways in which university expertise and research may be used to address pressing social, economic, and environmental issues. Both events earned impressive support, with dozens of teach-ins, workshops, and other events, as well as hundreds of attendees, an excess of one thousand supporting signatures, and healthy press coverage, including an article in the Washington Post.

At Princeton, following a suggestion forwarded by Professor D. Graham Burnett, the participants of the History of Science (HOS) Program Seminar hosted a knowledge fair under the banner, “Understanding Science and Anti-Science.” Occupying a public throughway in the First Student Center, presenters activated some aspect of their research as a gambit for drawing passersby into spontaneous, informal conversations about knowledge production and its contexts and implications, both positive and negative.

The encounters, which threatened public awkwardness and tasked presenters with the cunning of conversational salesmanship, were meant to be more dialogical and mutual than strictly didactic. The ambition was not simply to impart information but to prompt interactions that would provoke unexpected conversational spaces or ask members of the history of science community to approach their subject matter and methods afresh. Both faculty members and graduate students from History and HOS hosted tables bedecked with videos, games, provocations and other lures. Others acted as carnival barkers, enticing onlookers to pass the threshold from bystander to fair-goer. On the whole, the event was well attended by friends, colleagues, and, most of all, perfect strangers.

Over a period of four hours, twelve presenters took turns engaging fair-goers. David Dunning, a graduate student in HOS and among the first presenters of the day, attracted interlocutors with a placard asking, “Is counting political?” David used images from New Math textbooks to spark conversation about the politics of grade-school pedagogy, even of something as seemingly benign as elementary arithmetic.

Taylor Zajicek, a graduate student in history, shared a slide show about his research on seismology and earthquakes in nineteenth century Russian-controlled Turkestan. Taylor asked his visitors to question the supposed naturalness of natural disasters that, while perhaps a convenient refrain for political leaders, elides the ways in which environmental and social vulnerabilities hang on a range of human decisions and changes in the physical landscape.

Richard Spiegel, a graduate student in HOS, asked participants to join him in a comparative graphic analysis of two images of telescopes from the seventeenth century to consider how different forms of visual description imply different hierarchies of labor in research.

Anthony (Tony) Grafton, faculty in History and associated with the HOS program, sat behind a sign that read, “Anti-Science (then and now).” His neighbor, Charles Kollmer, a graduate student in HOS, overheard Tony draw in conversation with the alluring provocation, “Science, what’s there not to like?” Next to Tony, Charles engrossed faculty, graduate students and undergraduates using a presentation on how heredity has been deployed in scientific and political contexts. Discussing how eugenics and genetics parted ways in the middle of the twentieth century, Charles suggested how ideas about heredity continue to serve political functions, in, for instance, justifying inequality.

On the theme of internationalism in science, Emily Kern, a graduate student in HOS, hosted conversations about how proposals for visa and immigration restrictions impact scientific activity.

History of Science Knowledge Fair
Photo by Lisa Festa

Michael Gordin, a faculty member in HOS, asked participants to choose between three objects: a bottle of vodka, a statuette of Krishna, and a pack of Zener cards. Choosing one of the objects prompted a conversation about, respectively, science advice and the state (with reference to Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Russian vodka monopoly), the Manhattan Project (with reference to J.R. Oppenheimer’s “shatterer of worlds” comment), or the demarcation problem (with reference to ESP testing).

Sitting nearby with an impressively constructed, interactive poster board, Caitlin Harvey, a graduate student in history, asked her participants to play a game about the concept of “limits to growth.” Caitlin’s game led players to think about different examples of when individuals have proposed ecological limits to demographic or economic expansion.

Keith Wailoo, a faculty member in HOS and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, used a PowerPoint presentation about the long history of opioid and drug abuse to place the recent rise of opioid- and heroin-related deaths in historical perspective. Looking at the economic, political, and social contexts of drug use Keith revealed patterns in how drug “epidemics” begin, the ways they are managed, and how they end.

Keith Wailoo (right) explains to a visitor the history of drug abuse at the Knowledge Fair. Michael Gordin (back) uses a pack of Zener cards to explore the boundaries between ESP testing and science

Keith Wailoo (right) explains to a visitor the history of drug abuse at the
Knowledge Fair. Michael Gordin (back) uses a pack of Zener cards to
explore the boundaries between ESP testing and science. Photo by Lisa Festa.

Similar to Keith, Felix Rietmann, a graduate student in HOS, asked passersby to think about how historically contextualized thinking shapes our understanding of contemporary issues. Taking three examples from the history of child care— the use of psychotropic drugs (amphetamines) in children, advice concerning the virtues and vices of thumb sucking, and the diagnosis and assessment of autism—Felix discussed how thinking historically can serve the ways we address problems that are both medical and political. Jenne O’Brien, a graduate student in HOS, presented on Albrecht Dürer’s treatises on geometry and human proportions. Setting Dürer’s work in the context of Reformation iconoclasm, Jenne asked her participants to
question whether we might think of Dürer’s work as “propaganda” and whether we should think of
Dürer’s work as a justified or unjustified political repurposing of mathematical knowledge.

Katja Guenther, faculty in HOS, compared Cesare Lombroso’s criminal anthropology with “Neuroprediction of future rearrest” to demonstrate the ways in which studies of the human body inform legal and governmental practices. Katja used both cases to consider how scientific work has served to muddy the line between culpability and innocence.

All in all, the range of presentations, and a fluid cycle of fair goers passing through, ensured numerous generative conversations. Emily Kern remarked with surprise on “how good the Day of Action was for making friends with grad students in the sciences who didn’t even know HOS existed.” Charles Kollmer noted that it was refreshing to try and straightforwardly address weighty problems with non-specialists in HOS. And Keith Wailloo shared a moment in which, after his presentation on the sometimes-alarming patterns in the history of drug epidemics, he was asked the simple but striking question, “doesn’t this make you angry?” The question was a disarming reminder of how disciplinary practices can sometimes obscure one’s affective relationship with his or her subject matter.

In addition to the knowledge fair, Princeton History of Science ran a special session of Program Seminar on March 8 aimed at engaging the wider university community. The session attracted over 50 attendees, making for rather tight quarters and even spilling into an anteroom. The discussion was adroitly moderated by D. Graham Burnett, who after asking the day’s presenters to reprise their material, opened a general discussion about what historians of science do and how they use their craft to understand knowledge production, knowledge claims, and their manifold entanglements of society, politics and science.

For students in the History, Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) program, the MIT Day of Engagement and Action was a time to talk more about what exactly HASTS does, realizing that many fellow colleagues might not even know how the humanities and social sciences fit into MIT as an institution. Students set up in the lobby of a central building on campus, positioned to interact with people walking in and out of different sessions being held in surrounding classrooms. Styling the table as a “Science and Society Carnival,” many students found the “carnivalesque” a surprisingly adaptable theme for their ends. Students handed out carnival food like popcorn and candy, but also used the food as an opportunity to start conversations about the role of scientific research in forming policies and practices around the environment and food production. It was an interesting, and, we hope, instructive exercise in irony, to hand out candy hand-in-hand with an op-ed from HASTS alum David Singerman about the history of sugar research in the United States. HASTS students Michelle Spektor and Erik Stayton took a creative spin on the carnival theme by using a maskmaking activity to think about identification. In addition to a mask, passersby could also take facts, tips, and fortunes discussing surveillance, cybersecurity, privacy, and biometrics.

The day of action was a relevant time to revisit MIT’s history and scrutinize anew the funding structure of research. The politics of research funding is not a new theme in MIT’s history; for example, the March 4, 1969 “day of reflection” mentioned earlier urged serious re-examination of military-driven research at MIT and MIT affiliated “special laboratories.” HASTS students Rodrigo Ochigame, Nadia Christidi, and Richard Fadok highlighted this part of MIT’s history with an art installation and handouts. Titled simply “Drone,” the art installation combined words, images, and sound to prompt reflection on connections between artificial intelligence and robotics research and its military uses. Passersby could also take a bookmark that outlined a timeline, from 1862 to 2017, of funding history at MIT. Current faculty and students were invited to situate themselves in this history by thinking about questions like, “how is my laboratory/department/fellowship funded? Is the funding corporate? federal? philanthropic? How does this system of funding affect my day-to-day experience in the laboratory? Who benefits from my research? What are the implications of my work?”

The urgency of such questions is increasingly complicated by the challenge of maintaining a critical and interrogative orientation towards science and technology in a political situation where several major funding agencies are being cut at the federal level. The question of what kinds of research are worth supporting is underlined by the increasing ambivalence in current politics about science and truth claims. With this in mind, HASTS students Ellie Immerman and Claire Webb put together an interactive poster that displayed different examples of science and pseudoscience.Framed theoretically by brief introductions to Popper, Fleck, Merton, and Mulkay, the poster presented a wide range of historical case studies involving ruptures of knowledge, from 15th century astrology to phrenology and neuroimaging. Passersby could also learn more about citizen science and Public Lab, an organization co-founded by HASTS alum Sara Wylie that facilitates DIY air, water, and land testing through open source and collaborative data practices. Looking at Public Lab’s methods offered a way to think through the conjunction of environmental justice and data justice, and what it means to build up a public capacity for expertise and critique.

In addition to student-led Science and Society Carnival, HASTS faculty led various presentations that drew audiences that might not typically sit in a history, anthropology, or STS class. Members of the history faculty spoke about crisis and resistance in “illiberal democracies” across the globe, and anthropology faculty also hosted a session on the continuing legacy of eugenics. Beyond the day of action, HASTS faculty and students have been holding meetings organized around variously themed “microtalks” that address how the roles of scholar and citizen are intersecting in newly challenging ways. Topics so far have included twitter and political speech, immigration and law, data concerns, gender and race in coal country, environmental justice, class politics and economic inequality, and academic research funding cuts. The day of action was an opportunity to extend some of this ongoing internal dialogue outwards. The process of planning the day of action encouraged everyone involved to think more deeply about how a program like HASTS is equipped to provide conscientious critique within MIT as an institution, and how the questions that drive our research translate into broader dialogues beyond our own fieldsites, archives, and day-to-day lives. The hope is that visitors to the day of action left with new tools and resources for thinking about science and society and for evaluating debates about science occurring around us today.

Our thanks go to the organizers of the Princeton Day of Action and the MIT Day of Engagement and Action for their vision and superb execution, and to all of those who participated in the events of March 8 and April 18. Thanks to the History, Anthropology, and STS departments for enthusiastically supporting the MIT Day of Action. Thanks, too, to the members of the organizing committee for the Princeton History of Science Knowledge Fair, Megan Baumhammer, D. Graham Burnett, Caitlin Harvey, and Felix Rietmann, as well as Coralie Lamotte and Felice Physioc for their help with making posters.