Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Science

How do practitioners—of any form of specialized knowledge—learn technical skills, and how do they find knowledge deemed solid and secure? Clearly, much training occurs within formal situations such as schools and laboratories. Classrooms and their textbooks have attracted due attention from historians, with a focus in the last decade or so on how teachers convey working knowledge bodily and not only abstractly to their students or apprentices. But learning does not stop with formal education, and often enough it starts elsewhere. Manuals and handbooks have long enabled informal, often self-directed education and training. They also provide a new vantage point for bringing together history of science with history of books and media, from antiquity to the present. These instructional texts and compendia codify the knowledge of a working community with an eye to communicating what a new practitioner needs to know. Such texts have also played a key role in bringing local knowledge and know-how to far-flung readers and practitioners around the globe. By following these apparently mundane texts and their uses, rather than focusing only on elite practitioners, we bring into view an exciting new set of historical connections and participants.

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Symptoms of the Jet Age: Global Air Mobility and Disease Control in the 1960s

"United Air Lines DC-6 and DC-6B Mainliners 1950s,” via 1950sUnlimited on Flicker with some rights reserved (CC BY 2.0)

Soon after the global SARS outbreaks in 2003, and many years before the current novel coronavirus pandemic led to a historically unique shutdown of global air traffic, health experts anticipated the vital role air connections would play in the likely event of a worldwide zoonotic pandemic. In 2006, for example, the chief doctor at Frankfurt Airport observed, “In the context of globalization, we in Europe must assume that infection outbreaks on other continents will within 14–24 hours pose a considerable threat to our German population.”1 For medical and global historians, past relations between air traffic, plagues, and health policies present a promising, still largely unexplored research topic.2 Stranded last spring due to a COVID-19 flight ban myself, I started wondering how experts in epidemiology and sanitary control reacted to the rise of mass air travel. How did health experts cope with the breakthrough of the jet age in the 1960s and what were their strategies against the spread of contagious diseases by airplanes?

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Editorial Team Changes

A little over a year ago, Kerstin von der Krone joined Goethe University Frankfurt am Main as head of the J. C. Senckenberg University Library's Judaica Division. As a result, she is stepping back from day-to-day involvement with this blog. Mark Stoneman, an editor–historian at the German Historical Institute Washington DC (GHI), remains, and three colleagues, all GHI research fellows, are joining him: Anna-Carolin Augustin, Mario Peters, and Claudia Roesch.

Drifting Along: Unemployment and Interwar Social Research, from Marienthal to Muncie

Crosspost from Migrant Knowledge

In January of 1929, the husband-and-wife sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published what would become a landmark work of popular ethnography called Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. The Lynds’ broadly accessible book presented an in-depth profile of the social and civic life in Muncie, Indiana, a “typical” American community which, not coincidentally, had a very large white, Protestant population and relatively small, marginalized communities of immigrants and African Americans. Despite the somewhat unrepresentative picture of American society portrayed in their study, the Lynds were motivated by the progressive social impulse that had been established in the work of the sociologist Thorstein Veblen. Their intention was to survey the injustices and inequalities of the modern “pecuniary” society, which made material wealth the ultimate value. Vigorously promoted by its publisher, the book was the first social-scientific study to become a best-seller, and it would become the go-to reference for mass marketers trying to figure out what motivated the average American consumer just before the economy collapsed into the Great Depression.1

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Swedish Science and European French

Eighteenth-century Sweden was a scientific powerhouse. Its researchers gave their names to some of the most significant developments of the period, from the Linnaean system of binomial classification to the temperature metric established by Anders Celsius. But what if I told you that one secret to Sweden’s success was a German-speaking Protestant from Alsace?

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Reading Tip: ‘The Book That Would Not Die’

Donna Gabaccia reflects on the reception of William Foote Whyte’s famous Street Corner Society at the Migrant Knowledge blog:

William Foote Whyte’s study of Italian immigrants in the North End of Boston was not particularly successful after its release in 1943. In the years after 1970, though, Street Corner Society garnered great success and became, in the words of its author, “the book that would not die.” Paradoxically, specialists in Italian American studies found little to love in the book. Here I argue that a hidden history of gender and ethnic dynamics in the academic production of knowledge can explain the paradox. . . .

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German Studies and the History of Knowledge

We are publishing the following information in conjunction with the German Studies Association’s 2020 virtual conference, which runs from September 29 to October 4.

With instructors and students facing many more months of online teaching and learning, I would like to briefly highlight some blog posts in the history of knowledge that might prove useful to those working on various aspects of German history, culture, society, and language. The selection comes from two blogs that I co-edit for the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC, and its Pacific Regional Office at UC Berkeley, namely, History of Knowledge and Migrant Knowledge. I was initially inspired to identify such pieces by the German Studies Collaboratory’s own efforts to foster collaboration and experimentation during the pandemic. Appropriately, none of the articles are behind a password or paywall, and their average length is only some 2,000 words. They might be useful for students’ own research or for assigned class readings. If you are using blog posts as assignments, the posts in this list might also serve as instructive examples, for better or for worse, depending on the assignments you envision.

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Social Media as a Distinct Form of Knowledge Production

When I started blogging in 2016, I had not been an active reader of blogs. I liked the idea of reaching out to a broader public by blogging about my research project on the eponymously titled Migration and Belonging, not least because it was publicly funded, but what exactly would it mean to blog as a historian? How often would I need to upload a post and on what? Would I be able to handle the technical requirements? What pictures could I use? And how about other social media? I have been blogging and tweeting for some four years now. In 2017, I also began using Instagram for scholarly communication. Here I reflect on my experiences with academic blogging and other social media as a distinct form of producing knowledge—some meta-blogging, if you will.

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The Value of Rumors in Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The White Guard’

White Army ammunition train

Mikhail Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, weaves an affecting story about the power of human connection in times of crisis.1 First serialized in 1925, albeit not to completion, and informed by his own experiences, it employs psychological realism to capture life in Ukraine during the catastrophic Russian Civil War, which had ended only a few years earlier.2 That experience included the wildfire spread of “uncertain knowledge.” Not surprisingly, rumors—as well as talk of rumors—abound in The White Guard, providing a window into a world fraught with uncertainty.

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Historicizing Knowledge

Recently there has been a lot of chatter on academic Twitter reflecting on the need to decolonize various academic fields. Such impulses go to the heart of what histories of knowledge are: People produce, use, translate, and pass on knowledge in specific socio-cultural contexts. Knowledge has a history, and much of that history is bound up with the histories of fields and professions.

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