One morning a week, I meet up with another student in my graduate program, to have coffee and maybe a muffin, talk about what we've been up to. We're both in the history of science program, but at different stages; I'm done with coursework and just doing my dissertation, while Ellen's still taking classes and trying to narrow down a dissertation topic. We also cover different topic areas in the history of science -- I'm working on the history of academic psychology in America, and she's probably going to end up doing something with industrial chemistry, probably European. Differences in focus notwithstanding, we inevitably end up spending a lot of time talking about our research. For every half-hour spent talking about our mothers or our boyfriends or books we've read, there's at least another forty-five minutes spent talking about our research. I'm starting to think this is just normal for academics, and I carry with me every day the fear that I'm going to turn in to one of those weird old professors who can't talk about anything other than what they find in archival collections.
I mean, you might be surprised by the types of things you can find in archival collections. Just this month Ellen discovered a set of tape recordings containing detailed interviews with seventy or eighty members of the Shumway family in Utah, most of whom were uranium miners through the middle of the twentieth century. Last year, working on a different project, she found a photograph of Albert Einstein on a Navajo reservation, wearing a feathered ceremonial headdress and goofing around with some kids. I once spent the better part of a day in the Boston Public Library leafing through a box of hate mail sent to a German psychologist during the First World War -- the box had everything from formal statements of severed social contacts to handwritten letters suggesting that my research subject had engaged in improper sexual relations with Kaiser Wilhelm. On a research trip to Clark University, I came across an entire folder of photographs that had been used as part of a display for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Taken as a set, the photographs provide a complete visual record of the university's experimental psychology laboratory, and a lot of the experimental equipment was shown with graduate students posing as research subjects. In one picture, a young man in a coat and tie has been blindfolded and tied to a chair with rope; the chair, in turn, is bolted to a large rotating platform, and small bells have been mounted at varying distances from the subject's head. If I had to guess, I'd say that they were measuring the effect that dizziness had on auditory perception, but honestly the whole thing looks like some kind of bizarre torture device.
Mostly my research doesn't make for good conversation, though. In my dissertation I'm trying to make an argument about the ways in which the field of psychology was shaped by being located in universities. What this means in practical terms is that I spend a lot of time with course catalogs, university administrative correspondence, and graduate student files from the 1890s. If I find a price list for laboratory equipment or a log book of feeding schedules for lab animals, it's an exciting day in the archives. The most interesting finds so far have been student notebooks. A couple of the universities I've visited have course notebooks in their archives. I was surprised the first time I ran across one of these. I mean, sure, there's a box somewhere in my mother's attic with the notebooks I used in college lecture courses, but I don't think it would ever have occurred to me to donate those to my college's library.
On my most recent research trip, I had the incredible good fortune to find a notebook in which a postdoctoral fellow had taken extremely detailed notes for a 1901 course in evolutionary psychology given at Cornell by Margaret Floy Washburn. Washburn was the first woman to receive a doctorate in psychology in the United States, and she was one of the first psychologists to do any in-depth study on the development of mental function in animals. Most of what made this particular notebook so fascinating, though, was the discussion of evolutionary theory. In 1901, just over forty years since the publication of Origin, most scientists had accepted the basic idea of the evolution of animal species, but no one had any really good idea about how it happened. Gregor Mendel's pea-breeding experiments had yet to be discovered by the scientific community, and Thomas Hunt Morgan's landmark work with fruit flies was still several years in the future. Anyone talking about evolution, especially in a classroom context, had to contend with all of the conflicting and competing theories. I've read enough histories of biology and evolution to know that there was a lot of chaos surrounding evolutionary theory in this period, but it's a whole different experience to actually read a record of one of the best psychologists of that generation working through the cutting edge of biological theory in front of a classroom full of undergraduates.
That notebook was something of an aberration, though. The notebooks I've found at other schools are mostly what you'd expect from student notebooks, even student notebooks from the 1890s. The handwriting is miserable, the margins have geometric doodles and cartoon drawings of the professors, and some lectures are marked only with a series of squiggly lines followed by "Physiol. of ear? What?" I keep reading the notebooks, hoping to find more of the standouts, but they're mostly not very good sources of material. They do serve one important function, though. They help me remember that every large undertaking has a lot of ordinary day-to-day components. The nineteenth-century psychologists I'm studying had to write up funding requests and grade midterm exams and remind their research assistants to return library books. I'm pretty sure that they got together socially with colleagues too, to talk about their wives or the books they'd read or the latest in international politics, and that they ended up talking about their research all the time, maybe even at parties or in letters to their friends. I think that's just how it goes.
Copyright © 2004 Susan Marie Groppi
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Susan Marie Groppi is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.