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Humanities for STEM: Using Archives to Bridge the Two Cultures Divide

Humanities for STEM is a two-year research collaborative, which focuses on how the study of primary sources, archival research, and associated methodologies of the humanities can be used to enhance the understanding of science (including medicine), technology, engineering, and mathematics. Funded by NYU’s Center for the Humanities, this collaborative explores the ways in which archives and special collections can support scholarship and education in the sciences, discuss the ways in which scholars in the sciences and humanities use archival collections, and expose scholars to STEM-related archives, with a particular focus on collections at NYU and the NYC area.

In Friday monthly meetings, a group of scientists, engineers, humanists, archivists, and graduate students will discuss topics relating to archival outreach and access, integration of archival research into STEM education, the role of STEM collections in scholarly research, and new approaches to bridging gaps between the sciences and humanities through the use of archives.

The co-directors of this collaborative are Chris Leslie, a lecturer at the Tandon School of Engineering who teaches courses in Science and Technology Studies that use insights from the fields of the humanities to better understand science and engineering, and Lindsay Anderberg, archivist and interdisciplinary sciencesand technology librarian at the Bern Dibner Library, who has been curating special collections in Brooklyn related to the School of Engineering and conducting outreach to faculty like Dr. Leslie. In publishing papers and making presentations about this work, we realized there is significant interest among scholars and librarians about this topic.

It has been our experience that students gain a great deal of insight from their engagement with archival material. One outcome, albeit not specific to STEM, is a healthy skepticism about the process of history. Our students who read history books now understand the kind of research that underpins historical analysis and the limitations of source material, helping them to see how histories are arguments about the available facts instead of passive, objective recountings of the past. With respect to STEM, we have found students have made interesting analyses using local material. The history of science and technology sometimes is presented as metahistories even though the larger field of history has called this practice into question for many years. The postmodern attention to local histories seen in other subdisciplines has been successful in challenging what STS practitioners call whig histories, and our students have found productive dissonances when they study independent researchers in the age of big science, when research is thought to be dominated by large government contracts.

Engaging with the material of history has also encouraged students to engage in rhetorical analyses. They think about how the presentation of the self as an independent inventor is important for the preparation of patents, yet realize how this construction denies the importance of community and the accumulation of cultural knowledge. This results in students thinking about how the rhetoric of patent applications (and how this filters into modern discourse) actually hinders individuals from being effective innovators. Finally, students who are interested in increasing the diversity of STEM find archival resources to be effective case studies of gender dynamics. They study how to account for the absence of women in the archive, for instance, and imagine what must be done to counteract that archival silence. They also study the surprisingly masculinist description of tools and work processes that is so much more obvious in studying archival material, making connections to gendered theories of technology.

This research collaborative is open to faculty and graduate students who are working on case studies, historiographies, pedagogical proposals, and other approaches relevant to the collaborative. Although any approach delving into the theme of STEM and archival research would be welcome, we are especially interested in the following themes:

  • How are documents of invention shaped by the needs of archives, such as the necessity of record keeping for resolving intellectual property disputes or documenting sponsored research? Does this dynamic taint the historical claims that can be made?
  • What insights from the humanities, as demonstrated through archival sources, can offer correctives to triumphant stories of progress and, in so doing, help future practitioners be better aware of the challenges that face those seeking to disseminate new technologies or scientific ideas?
  • To what extent have the existence of archives for some key figures guided science and technology studies as a whole? How might the lack of primary sources affect the histories we tell? What should historians do to resolve these archival silences?
  • How should historians incorporate the insights into personalities gained when studying primary sources about technology? What place do personal stories have in the history of innovation?
  • Can pedagogies foreground the use of archival material in the classroom, especially with regard to STEM education? Can historical/archival materials be a part of educating engineers and scientists in the content of STEM, outside of the history classroom?
  • How can digital methods and resources be used to engage engineers, undergraduate students, and/or the public on central issues of history and technology?

The main activities of the collaborative will be:

  1. Opening plenary sessions in Fall 2016 and Fall 2017.
  2. Visits to NYU and NYC-area archives with STEM collections.
  3. Generating new pedagogical approaches or research projects using STEM archives and special collections
  4. Workshopping research papers based on STEM and archives
  5. Presenting papers at culminating symposium in spring 2018

If you have any questions, please contact Zakiya Collier (zakiya.collier@nyu.edu).

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