Liveblog: Infrastructure & Communication, HASTS 25th Anniversary Event

Events,Liveblog November 10, 2013 10:06 pm

m&m trio 3

Co-written with Shreeharsh Kelkar, Lan Li, and Beth Semel, with additional assistance from Julia Fleischhack; photos by Amy Johnson.

The Infrastructure & Communication panel, the final panel in the 25th Anniversary Event, introduced by Renee Blackburn and moderated by Ellan Spero:

Slava Gerovitch (‘99):  ‘Writing Across the Lines:’ A Parallel Social Infrastructure in Soviet Mathematics in the 1970s

Shane Hamilton (‘05): Navigating the Spatial Turn

Wade Roush (‘94): History, Journalism, and the Technology of Storytelling

Livia Wick (‘06): The Arabic Language, Pedagogy, and the Concept of Crisis


Slava Gerovitch (‘99): ‘Writing Across the Lines:’ A Parallel Social Infrastructure in Soviet Mathematics in the 1970s

ACJ_Slava Gerovitch

Historians haven’t studied the history of late 20th century math, primarily because the math itself is very complicated. What makes math in the late 20th century interesting is that during this period it becomes a social activity — you can’t do it individually. Rather, you do math now through groups, collaborations, conferences, etc.

“Being successful in mathematics becomes dependent on social skills.”

Slava will discuss the repercussions of this shift for Soviet mathematics. This period is often referred to as the “golden age” by mathematicians, but what was it actually like?

Secrecy and political restrictions weakened the ties of Soviet mathematicians to their colleagues abroad. And while Moscow University was the best place to study mathematics in the Soviet Union, access to it was difficult in the 1970s. A whole group of “undesirables” — Jews, dissidents, and even high schoolers with advanced training — were barred from Moscow University and confined to second-tier institutions. Further, Soviet mathematics was organized in a very rigid manner and was highly centralized.

And finally, mathematics was physically restricted because Moscow University itself was barred: guards checked your credentials before allowing you in. This naturally also restricted the spread of ideas.

To overcome these restrictions, Soviet mathematicians came up with a whole host of informal practices and techniques — a “parallel social infrastructure.”

“If they give you lined paper, write across the lines.” –From an interview with a Soviet mathematician, talking about mathematicians’ regular practice of challenging these constraints.

The first of these were after-school activities in Moscow schools for bright high school students, a “shadow pedagogy.” After school courses were also organized for students turned away by Moscow University, with many of these lectures being given without pay. This informal university came to be called the “Jewish People’s University” and was later shut down by the KGB.

Soviet mathematicians moved the doing of mathematics to semi-private/semi-public spaces. E.g., they would invite students to stay for several days in their dachas, where they would both work and play. The Soviet dacha was an escape from official control. Comparing it to the relationship between postwar American physicists and suburbs, what David Kaiser terms the suburbanization of physics, Slava calls this the “dacha-nization” of Soviet mathematics.

For some mathematicians “the dacha became the primary working space.”

Soviet mathematicians cultivated a new identity in these new semi-official spaces, distinct from their official identities. A new sense of possibility was thus created for Soviet mathematicians through the creation of these informal institutions.


Shane Hamilton (‘05): Navigating the Spatial Turn

ACJ_Shane Hamilton

Shane begins with a map and a brief discussion of spatial history. Directing us to Richard White’s working paper What Is Spatial History? for more information, Shane points to the open-endedness of studying maps and studying space with GIS, suggesting it’s a process that only occasionally produces something useful. Nonetheless, Shane continues to make maps; for example, in conjunction with his upcoming book on the “farms race,” looking at the location of supermarkets and relationships between space and political economic variables. But that project isn’t his focus today.

Maps are inherently collaborative. Shane has been working on a mapping project with his students, studying southern textile workers in the Piedmont region of Georgia. This is the HIST4067 GA Textile History project. Student papers focus on working in textile mills in the early 20th century. How many employees did they have? How many spindles were there? Where were the railroads? After making the maps, Shane and his students take a look, think about what’s missing, and then search for data to add to the map, such as tuberculosis rates, literacy rates, and child welfare legislation. Very cool stuff.

Another project that’s also inherently collaborative is History on the Move, inspired by a drive through North Carolina. Shane became so bored during this drive that he found himself wondering what would happen if he could flip a switch on his GPS to turn on stories about the historical events that had happened in these locations. He imagines a kind of core set of data based on narratives. These could be audiobooks/narratives that are 3-4 minutes each and collected like a tour package, but discuss a number of points that are widely dispersed without you having to travel to all of these locations. He directs us to a version done by his student Timothy Johnson on Sherman’s March through Georgia.

For Shane, this is a way of delivering public history that could potentially bring our research to a broader audience. Why would anyone want to do this? In some ways, you can see this as an alternative journal that’s easier to get into. For older scholars, it could be a means to attract publicity. At the moment, Shane is talking to Georgia Press about producing a book series. He invites us all to contribute to these narratives.


Wade Roush (‘94): History, Journalism, and the Technology of Storytelling

ACJ_Wade Roush

Wade begins with a question: What does it mean to do history, and what does it mean to do journalism? Alternately, do history and journalism have anything to say to each other?

He directs us to xconomy, the online journal for high tech entrepreneurship where he works, as exemplifying the overlapping of history and journalism. History and journalism are related; journalists need historians.

What do historians do that distinguish them from everyone else? They work with primary documents and they pay attention to the 5 c’s: change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency. What does it mean, then, to do journalism?

Journalists also draw on primary sources, only they talk to these sources in the present. However, in most other respects, Wade sees the businesses to be very much the same: journalists also deal with change and causality. They pay attention to the complexities of their subjects’ lives. And in looking at how things might be different in the future, they have their eye on contingency.

Unlike historians, however, journalists have a schedule. They don’t have years to write books — instead, they have hours to write blog posts. Because their schedule is so accelerated, they don’t always have time to think the way historians do, and therein lies the tension. The thinking that historians get to do, and the immersive coverage that historians do is something that journalists can’t really do on a day to day basis.

To get at this tension, he gets autobiographical. In his words, he talked his way into STS by arguing that training as a historian would make him a better journalist. Looking back, he sees his time at MIT as pivotal. His background in STS has led him to produce a different kind of journalism, shaping his entire career and bringing him to where he is today. His learning, he says, happened both inside and outside of STS headquarters in building E51.

Outside E51, he got to hang out with science journalists, which helped to confirm his attraction to science journalism. At this time, Victor McElheny, the founding director of the Knight Science Journalism program, became a real mentor and treasured friend to Wade. This connection was key — through Vick, he found himself in a number of positions. For example, he met the editor of Technology Review, who asked him to be the editor of the West Coast edition, during which period he met the founder of xconomy. Eventually this led to another position, working for Science Magazine. Wade traces this genealogy up to his present position at xconomy.

The coursework in the program exposed him to debates and authors that are still on his mind today. These books helped give him a critical perspective on where technology comes from, how it constructs people, and how it advances — he hopes he has been able to work this into his journalism.

His thesis advisor, Charlie Wiener, always pushed him to probe the line between historical and journalistic storytelling. Tellingly, Weiner left the following note on a draft of his dissertation: “Without a deeper analytic framework and without advocating analytic approaches, the writing focuses too much on descriptive accounts of the catastrophe and does not push much further.”

Reflecting on his dissertation, “Catastrophe and Control: How Technological Disasters Enhance Democracy,” he did indeed find himself telling a lot of “cool stories,” always with an eye for going a little bit deeper. Attempts to address disasters, says Wade, require a gaze that stretches across multiple scales: How did Three Mile Island affect the way people thought about nuclear power? How did Chernobyl affect the way people started thinking about Soviet power?

In the present, his own work as a journalist incorporates this historical perspective. For example, in working a story he wrote on Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, the City Over the Hill, Works to Build Its Own Startup Culture, Wade recognized the need to look at how the city developed across time. Santa Cruz is not usually considered part of Silicon Valley, but in some ways is actually much closer to the heart of things than San Francisco or Berkeley. He went to consider whether Santa Cruz could be a technology hub in its own right. Could they build up their own economy, separate from, but related to Silicon Valley?

He found himself looking back to Steinbeck, to literature on the development of the city. There was a lot of history that he felt like he needed to educate himself on before he could begin to tell the story of Santa Cruz — both in the present and as it might be in the future, conjecturing on its potential for innovation.


Livia Wick (‘06): The Arabic Language, Pedagogy, and the Concept of Crisis

Livia will discuss a project that’s still in its preliminary stages. Her dissertation was about childbirth and medical care in Palestine. And while she continues to consider the idea of perseverance (aṣ-ṣamūd الصمود), looking at how it’s sometimes juxtaposed with political activity, she’s now also interested in issues of language.

More specifically, she’s interested in the decreased prevalence of Arabic as English is used more and more in university life. Indeed, there’s a long history of anglicization of the American University of Beirut. This project focuses on teaching and learning the Arabic language, looking at teaching on the level of schools, modes of learning, forms of knowledge, and the efficacy of teacher training.

Arabic language occupies a unique place in the educational context. A key duty of Arabic language instruction — at times both explicit and implicit — is transferring heritage to the next generation. Thus the great works of the literary canon, etc. are transmitted via Arabic language classes. (She’s referring here to the teaching and learning of Modern Standard Arabic, not Arabic dialects.)

In Lebanon, the state does not impose a history curriculum. Rather, it permits the different sects to teach history and religion as they choose. This results in a variety of approaches and content. Arabic language teachers, however, are still held responsible for teaching both language and heritage to the next generation.

This study allows us to consider the changing role of language(s) in a context shaped by a number of linguistic and educational factors, including the US’s considerable campaign for the “hearts and minds” of the Lebanese people, rising tuitions that make affording university challenging, etc.

In this project, she looks at four themes:

  1. modalities of learning Arabic, both in the classroom but also in the decontextualized environment of the university
  2. the practices and roles of Arabic teachers
  3. the perceptions and images of Arabic teachers/teaching
  4. the historical aspect of language teaching in Lebanon

She comes to this story through three sets of observations:

(a) As any foreign observer would notice if he/she hung out where middle class families hang out, Lebanese parents speak French or English to their children, but Arabic among themselves. (Here “Arabic” most likely means Arabic dialect, not Modern Standard Arabic as in literary Arabic.) If you ask these parents why they aren’t speaking Arabic to their children, they’ll probably say, It will help my children get into elite schools and universities (like AUB). It will help my children do well.

On the other hand, there’s an anxiety about their children NOT learning Arabic. At school meetings parents are always saying, I’m really worried, my child doesn’t speak Arabic well, what can we do?

(b) Second, there’s a discourse about colonialism and ideas of a “backward” language. In this context, contrasts with the US liberal arts system are played up, with the liberal arts system framed as helping you to think critically. You become a “critical person.” On the other hand, the other system — the system of traditional Arabic language teaching — is framed as the memorization of classics. You become “a library of great books.”

You hear that yes, the US-European model has been taken up in these countries, but has failed. You hear that Arabic teaching is backward, for you learn by heart.

She skips the third set of observations to move to a discussion of “linguistic colonialism” an anthropological concept used to investigate the relationships of language, power, and post/colonialism. In contrast to the critical person of liberal arts education, she’s interested in how a learning-by-heart person is constructed and who that person is.


Q & A

Ellan gives the panelists a chance to respond to each other’s talks first. Wade wonders whether Shane sees his students learn in a different or faster way by incorporating tech into the classroom. Audio, media, and so on seem to provide different ways of storytelling.

Shane says that he doesn’t have any of his undergrads doing History on the Move. A filter built into the project only allows graduate students and faculty at “real” research universities to participate. But in the classroom project on mapping — in which he collaborates equally with undergraduate students, though he takes care of the technical GIS stuff — students are invested in the project. More than they would’ve been if they were simply writing a paper that would just be read and recycled. This project lives on. It’s now an entity that other people might add to.

This project also forces students out of their way of thinking about history. It really forces them to think. Elsewhere, they might not think about space and place in such a rigorous way as they are pushed to in his classroom. Students have to think about space and place in ways that they’re not used to or comfortable with. Students have written papers before — that’s not so new — but GIS was. It forced students out of their comfort zone.


Candis Callison (‘10) asks Wade, How has your STS background helped you deal with the major changes going on in journalism? Norms, ethics, and practices are now all up for debate. What you’re doing with xconomy is quite different from traditional journalist models.

Wade explains that his stay at MIT and those particular years — from 1989-1994 — were critical. This was an important period in the development of the web, and he became entranced. The very first STS website was a collaboration between him, Graham Ramsay, and some other folks.

This was an opportunity to be interdisciplinary and immerse yourself in technology. He spent long hours in the Athena clusters coding HTML. All of which prepared him for being a multimedia person from the start. So the wrenching transition from print to digital wasn’t unexpected. He had been waiting for it for more than a decade. He wrote the first piece the Technology Review published online, about the web itself.

At xconomy they’re doing ridiculously long-form stories. In that sense, they’re much more like a magazine than a blog. They’re trying to come up with something new that their sponsors will find worth supporting. They’re doing very well so far — something of a miracle in these economic times.


Peter Shulman (07) Sometime during his first or second year in the program, he attended a talk about a mathematician’s discovery, full of people from the math department. He attempted to ask a question that incorporated all that he’d been learning in STS. What about the mathematician’s background — what was behind this topic? he wondered. He was met with silence. It was as if he were crazy. They seemed to be saying they took for granted that it was an interesting subject, and moved on. IS such a question — probing the person behind the math — so crazy? Were people doing the same kind of math in Moscow as elsewhere? And given the Soviet concept, what was the history behind the subject, behind what they were studying?

Slava replies that Shane has asked the right kind of question — privately, mathematicians are interested in such questions, but there is a sense that they must maintain an air of subjectivity that eliminates such questions in public fora. Behind the scenes, they are very much interested in such questions, and he has asked such questions in interviews with mathematicians himself.

Apropos to the forces of change that affect these discoveries, in his own research on Moscow University, many mathematicians went on to peripheral universities or remained in Moscow and did mathematics as a hobby. You had to be in Moscow — you had to climb those fences to get at some very important seminars in order to get exposed to some very important ideas. You couldn’t subscribe to international journals, so you had to be there at these talks, in which international speakers would bring new information to the table.

The mathematicians who occupied positions of power at official institutions often based their reputation on a different kind of mathematics.  New mathematics coming from France and the US was not something they were interested in — they were not interested in building a reputation in the world community. They thought that they had their own achievements that the world should recognize.  The mathematicians in the parallel social infrastructure, on the other hand, were usually oriented toward the latest trends in the West. They often circulated copies of foreign publications, almost like samizdat. So there was indeed a difference in research orientation between the mathematicians in the establishment and in the margins.

David Lucsko asks Shane Hamilton: What’s the scale of History on the Move? Regional, national, what? What counts as interesting?

Shane: Excellent questions! I have no answer.

Shane explains, however, his vision, which he’s trying to set up the infrastructure to make happen. He’s trying to establish some form of permanence, and then have the project live its own life. He wants to encourage people to use it and see what happens. There are ways to search the material by theme — agriculture, business, technology, etc. — or by place. The central idea is that if you’re commuting and bored, for example, you can ask for any narrative within fifty miles of that place. Or you can register and say you’re interested in a particular time period, and request notification whenever something in that period gets published.


Sara Wylie says that HASTS has the best environment to make methodological innovations; she herself worked in the Media Lab creating web-based tools to monitor oil companies. She asks the panel how STS research can reach a broad audience.

Livia says this is an important question.

Wade continues: It’s easy to bury yourself in the library, but for him, he was interested in and was able to connect with others outside the academy. He doesn’t necessarily recommend this route to others. He also doesn’t think one needs a PhD to be a journalist but it would be interesting to think of things the other way around.


David Mindell says that when Wade graduated, he was the first to formally graduate from the STS program. When David himself came in in 1991, there were no graduates and no one had even taken their generals.

Wade says that David is a prime example of an interdisciplinary person who has one foot in engineering and the other in the history of technology.


Gordon Galer (‘01) offers a question about writing and methodology. He’s now doing nonprofit work for museums and being asked to blog all the time. Blogging and academic writing are significantly different. How should you balance rigor and tone?

Wade: I was counting how many articles I’d written since we started xconomy and it was just under 3000. When you’re moving at that kind of speed you have to try to make your writing as plain and to the point as possible.

He continues, explaining that the demands of speed have forced him to strip away any ornateness and pushed him toward brevity and speed. At this point he kind of wants to move back in the other direction a bit. He wants to carve out room to think slowly again.

Shane: So much of digital humanities stuff attempts to reach out to the public. The author says, I’m going to try to reach out to the public. But if you’re trying to reach out to some unknown public, how do they find you? Part of the motivation behind History on the Move is a way to draw people in who don’t really know that it’s out there. If a student is interested in the Civil War, they can Google the war. But how do you get them to think about industrial agriculture, when it’s not obviously something they’ve ever thought about or cared about?

He pushes his graduate students to write their dissertations with a broader readership in mind, to try out framing their scholarship in brief, “modular nuggets.”


Hilary Robinson suggests that the element that ties these talks together is knowledge production, and offers a question about institutionalization. What is our question exactly when, as STS practitioners, we do our thing and hit up against different fields? Can you look forward to your own studies to suggest where STS might be going with regard to knowledge production?

Wade: No one on the panel is really in an STS department. Rather, most of the panelists are “beach-heads” for STS in a different discipline. For Wade, this journalism. That seems to Wade the only alternative short of some revolution in how academia is funded.

Slava suggests he’d like to see more joint courses, where students in math and STS can meet and discuss ideas. The more STS looks inward, the more it becomes focused on its internal problems, rather than looking outward. But he thinks colleagues across the campus would actually welcome STS input and interaction.

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