23 November 2011

Canadian Science and Technology Association Conference 2011

Yes, that's right. Two blogs in one day. It's also true that I went to two conferences in a row in Ottawa. One of my co-panellists attended both, and we're of the opinion that we deserve some sort of award for enduring 5 consecutive days of conferencing, including giving presentations.

Here's my thoughts about the 2011 Canadian Science and Technology Historical Association's meeting.

I won't say much about the presentations at CSTHA. The keynote talk was an excellent example of an historian weaving his tale about both chemistry and forestry. Some of the other presenters were equally spell-binding, and several of the talks were interesting and well-developed. The broad engagement with artifacts was admirable. The panel on contemporary issues ignited more passion from the audience than yelling 'fire' in a crowded theatre. The representative from Helene LeBlanc's office was a brave man to stand there and bear the brunt of the frustration of a room full of historians, even if that frustration was directed at the Jenkins Report and the government that commissioned it (although he does a lose a few points for mentioning Marxist economics as a serious interpretative framework for the current opposition party). Yes, the same Jenkins Report that got me thinking at CSPC 2011.

The main event of CSTHA 2011 was the plenary discussion session regarding the future of the study of the history of science, technology and medicine. Many of the informal discussions over coffee throughout the conference returned to this theme. I'll get back to my thoughts on this in a moment.

One thing everyone needs to take advantage of at some point in their life is meeting David Pantalony. His energy and enthusiasm for history are infectious. We need to a) get him a platform through which he can reach the maximum number of people and b) find a hundred more just like him. Hearing him talk about a project or following his guided tour through the Canadian Science and Technology Museum and its sprawling warehouse is an experience that no one will ever forget and most will want to repeat.

As for the future of the study of history (of Canada, science, technology or medicine), the conference opened with Graeme Wynn's offhanded comment that we historians aren't concerned with the future. The plenary the next night, and the panel on contemporary issues showed that historians do care, and we are passionate about the present and the future.

The plenary panel shared their thoughts. Yves Gingras, Ruby Heap and Richard Jarrell all talked about the permanence of the field based on its location in universities - the kind of nuts and bolts political maneuvering that happens in universities and has a huge impact on the valuation of different fields of study. Richard Jarrell and David Pantalony talked about the importance of engaging primary sources; as David put it, when the artifacts and archives disappear, historians won't have anything to study and the field will vanish. The arguments and discussion were all reasonable, critical and intelligent. What was unfortunately unresolved was a plan for the future.

There was also the noticeable problem of this conference having one of the lowest turnouts for the CSTHA. I see three causes of this problem. One root of this problem is the sheer absence of graduate students working on projects in Canadian science, technology and medicine. I'll come back to this in a moment.

Another root of the problem is a lack of appreciation amongst graduate students for the history of CSTHA. Few graduate students were alive when CSTHA splintered from CSHPS, and fewer still understand why there needs to be an association/society for exclusively Canadian projects. Science is universal, and so are the projects of most graduate students.

The third and final root is the perception of CSTHA. It is open and inclusive - you'll meet academics, public historians and the curious (or as Yves Gingras calls them, 'stamp collectors'). This is a real strength, unless one is an academic snob. Those who aspire to pure academic and universal discourse at HSS and SHOT, or who focus on national academic discourse at places like CHA or AHA see CSHPS as the kid pool. CSTHA is even lower on the scale of academic desirability; it's the place to go if you don't mind consulting with stamp collectors as a way of working up to kid pool that is CSHPS, or the deep oceans at CHA, AHA, HSS and SHOT.

One role that CSTHA might play, then, is motivating graduate students to include Canadian science and technology in their projects. However, I've heard the same concerns from scientists and engineers at three consecutive science policy conferences (including the one organized by PIPSC). The dilemma appears to be motivating people to study __(insert academic subject here)__, and also giving them the skills to go on and __(innovate / educate / research / etc.)__. The consensus of navel gazing across the sciences, engineering and history (and I assume all other disciplines) is that waiting until students reach graduate school is definitely too late. Even undergraduate level is probably too late to motivate interest in __(the topic we find interesting and feel is important for future generations to learn)__. High school is a good start, but changing the high school curriculum means we need to change the elementary school curriculum. It is, in short, a daunting task. I have some ideas, but few politicians or professional curricula writers care what I think would be most beneficial for the education system.

For historians of Canadian STM there are a few obvious, and relatively easy, things we can do to increase awareness of and interest in Canadian history.
  1. Compose a decent survey text, perhaps a few different ones that could be targeted at different age groups.
  2. Revive the Wilder Penfield 'burnt toast' advertising series, perhaps even extending it to full TV shows. The Government of Canada Harper Government is making a big push for 1812 commemoration. Patriotism, even when fabricated for political purposes, could definitely serve our goals of making Canadian history exciting. Canadian history is exciting, but we have to sell it, and we want to sell the notion that there are more exciting events in Canadian (pre-)history than some war between Britain and the United States that was solved with delicious chocolate - wait Laura Secord didn't sate the Yanks with chocolate?
  3. Do I even need to mention that David Pantalony is probably the ideal candidate for bringing a controlled version of his exuberance to a TV show?
  4. Get more engaged in current debates to demonstrate the importance and applicability of history. We care about things like the Jenkins Report, and we have relevant things to say about it.
  5. In particular we need to have more historians attending things like the Canadian Science Policy Conference. The present state of science, engineering and medicine in this country is a direct result of the past. Surprisingly few scientists, engineers, policy analysts, politicians and journalists understand just how much we can learn from the past about the present situation, nor how the past can help us make better decisions going forward.
In short, we need to step out of the Ivory Tower (and CSTHA is better positioned for this than the bigger professional societies) to actually engage people. I'm sure there are numerous other things we could be doing, as historians, to motivate an interest in history (of Canada, science, technology or medicine), but these are a start for now.


  1. Jonathan, I loved the tour last Friday. Great group and artifacts. Your positive impression owed much to the fact that I rigged the outcome with many stops at Cold War artifacts.

    Re: the Plenary session, my main goal was to shift the debate away from traditional campus concerns to our vast and taken-for-granted pool of history of science primary sources and their depositories. I am increasingly finding that our primary sources are the most sought after aspect of our discipline, not our secondary literature. I am thinking of the many artists and curators I have been collaborating with recently, but also people from across the humanities and sciences. I am amazed at the number of serious visitors and classes I am getting to study in our warehouse collections. Their work is often completely independent of narratives in our discipline.

    Hence my point the other night that the future of our discipline lies with the innovative engagement with archives and collections. We must promote them as places of activity and methodological experimentation, not just wells of information. My course syllabi, for example, strongly emphasize the fun of exploring Ottawa's diverse collections, as much as learning from the secondary materials. I am seeing this more from several professors in the history of science.

    Bottom line? Students (our best barometer) love it!

  2. As much as I love the Cold War (as a subject of study), I'm a fan of old musty things in general. There were furniture pieces that I would've loved to 'borrow' for my living room! And the group discussion of the bicycle-built-for-two was good, although I couldn't get the song out of my head.

    Have the archivists, like Larry McNally, considered offering the archival equivalent of your artifacts course? Definitely something for them to consider.

    I think you thought the furthest outside the box at the plenary, and I'm glad you came here to elaborate on the many excellent points you made. The primary sources, and our better communicators, are real assets of the historical community and we need to use them to engage other academics, governments, the public, etc.

    Keep up the good work!