HSS News – October 2021

No Final Goodbyes!

The Executive Committee of the History of Science Society has voted to award Robert J. (Jay) Malone a lifetime membership of the Society. Although he stepped down from the position of Executive Director in July, the EC hopes Jay will continue to participate in the activities of HSS, which he served for more than two decades.
Best wishes,
Jan Golinski, HSS President

But Meanwhile, A Farewell Gesture

The HSS Editorial Office gratefully acknowledges Jay Malone’s contribution of his personal collection of Osiris volumes. While our office has carefully maintained a complete Isis set going back to Volume 1, Issue 1—our treasured copy of which is signed by George Sarton—we had not systematically collected Osiris volumes. The annual was founded in 1936 by Sarton and then relaunched in a new thematically-oriented series in 1985. Jay’s gift will help us preserve the work of generations of scholars in the history of science under one roof.

Another Departure

This issue of the HSS Newsletter marks the departure of editor Neeraja Sankaran, who has masterfully wrangled news, commentary, and items of interest to our field for the past two and a half years. You’ve seen her hand in everything from copy to proofreading to layout. She’s brought energy, attention to detail, and a keen eye for a good story to these pages—and she never missed a deadline. Her work as a science writer may have sharpened those editorial skills, but it’s her enthusiasm for the people and ideas that make up our discipline that shine through in these pages.

We are enormously grateful to Neeraja for the hard work she’s done in supporting this community of scholarship, which she has deep roots in. One of her first acts as editor was to revive the Newsletter’s advisory panel, the better to extend its connections throughout the network of the Society’s membership. In years when we have too often been denied the chance to reacquaint ourselves with one another in person, Neeraja has created a space in which our members could let their work and their personalities shine out. In interviews, in cleverly curated collections of favorite artifacts, in calls for action, in thoughtful reflections on their careers, and a dozen other ways, she’s helped remind us that while our work may sometimes be solitary, it need never be in isolation.

Permit us to note some of her other accomplishments. A graduate of Yale’s doctoral program, she’s published prolifically in the history of the biomedical sciences—including two books during her tenure as Newsletter Editor. (The most recent, A Tale of Two Viruses, just came out from the University of Pittsburgh Press in April.) She has also been contributing her time and editorial energy to another HSS publication, the Isis Current Bibliography’s forthcoming special issue of bibliographic essays on pandemics. An independent scholar presently a visiting fellow at Descartes Centre of Utrecht University, she is figuring out what exactly to do next and where. All she can say for sure is that it will most likely continue to involve viruses.

For ourselves, for the Society, and for all the people in our community that she has enriched with her work on the Newsletter, we thank our friend Neeraja Sankaran—and we look forward to seeing what she does next.

Pamela Long, Independent Historian of Science

An HSS@Work Career Profile 

Editor’s note: Back in 2008, Pamela Long wrote an essay (see p. 10) to tell the HSS what it meant to pursue a career outside of academia as an independent scholar. Thirteen years later, with two major prestigious fellowships under her belt, she’s back, talking with Jamie Brannon about her continued life in that stream and offering some very timely advice.

When in your career did you realize that you wanted to pursue the history of science and technology as an independent scholar? Was there any previous academic “experience” that convinced you a non-academic scholarship pathway would be better for you? Did you worry about income and finances?

Well, there was not one moment of epiphany. For years I applied for tenure-track jobs, sometimes five or ten a year. I just assumed this is what you needed to do to be a scholar. I never got one. I also applied for grants and fellowships every single year. I received many rejection letters but also, I received grants regularly. In addition, I taught intermittently in a great variety of settings. I worried about sufficient income, of course, all the time. My income was always essential to our household. I have a loving husband (which makes every difference) but he also had and has an independent business, so, being Americans, we had to purchase ALL of our health insurance as well as the other costs of food, housing, etc. including the expenses of raising our daughter. But I received some kind of grant, or several small grants, or some part-time job, every year. It very slowly dawned on me that I was very lucky. I have many friends working in the academy, and although they would never give up their tenured positions, they are clearly overworked in kinds of work that they do not love and would like to devote more time to their scholarship. There was a point (probably much too late) when I said, enough of this. I am not putting myself through another grueling three-day academic interview, thank you, goodbye.

How has the receipt of two major fellowships—the Guggenheim [2007] and the MacArthur [2014]—transformed your approach to scholarship? Would you say the last five years have been more productive, perhaps more fulfilling, than your earlier career?

To answer the last question first, no, really, I didn’t find the last five years more productive or fulfilling than the previous years, even though they have been wonderful. The Guggenheim is a highly prestigious fellowship, which I loved getting, but the amount of the fellowship, although fantastic, especially if you have no income, is no more than the NEH and much less than say other grants such as the NSF. (I am an independent scholar so the accounting part of my brain works very well!). The MacArthur award was another story. After I got over the shock—which took a while—I have to admit I felt nothing but relief. I had been working for at least twelve years (along with several other projects) on a book about engineering in sixteenth-century Rome, a book that required many long months of work in the Roman archives. Although I live pretty frugally when in Rome, it does cost money. The MacArthur enabled me to finish this book without thinking about money at all. Also, I was fortunate to find a skilled, trained classical Latinist—Chiara Bariviera, now also a dear friend—with whom I could work (and pay!), working on extensive and sometimes complicated Latin texts. This made a lot of difference—I had someone to discuss grammar and translation issues with and she did some translating too—I went through many more Latin papal bulls and other Latin texts than I would have been able to go through on my own, with my own less-than-absolutely fluent Latin skills. Engineering the Eternal City, published by Chicago in 2018, which has received four book prizes., is very indebted to the MacArthur Foundation grant.

What are the advantages—and disadvantages—of pursuing historical research as an independent scholar?

The advantage is that you can get your research and writing done, even when you take on far too many projects at once, as I do. The disadvantage is that you can’t be in one place teaching. I do think teaching is highly important and also rewarding. I have taught here and there, but this is not at all like building a teaching career in one place.

Lastly, what advice can you provide to early career doctoral-level scholars who are torn between following an academic career path that they were taught, and learned about, in graduate school, and the grinding realities of the academic marketplace with its all too few faculty positions available?

I would say honestly that if you are torn, you shouldn’t be making a definitive decision now. Go ahead and apply for academic jobs—give it all you’ve got. But also acquire the skills needed for applying for grants, post-doctoral positions, etc. Take part-time work. And above all, keep an open mind. Think of alternative ways of making a living at the same time that you may be applying for academic jobs. Every academic job is different. You really need to think about whether this is what you want—this particular location, the kind of job it is, how it affects other aspects of your life, including your family and relationships, how well you can do your scholarship there. Maybe it would be wonderful if you got such a job, which only one of the many applicants will. But maybe not. The whole mindset that if you want to be a scholar you have to have an academic job is mistaken. Be flexible, continue to think about alternatives, and above all, continue to do your research and writing.

More from the October 2021 Newsletter