Impolite Science: Print and Performance in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic

My dissertation considers how individuals outside of eighteenth-century scientific institutions developed ways of viewing, retelling, and recycling science in Britain and its North American colonies. At the outset of the eighteenth century, Royal Society and academic experts traded contentious words with amateurs over “the proper art of experiment.” By century’s close the scientific practices that would count as legitimate had been institutionalized. Scholars have long explained the emergence of science in Anglo-American culture from 1720–1770 by locating science within a wider topography of emergent modern practices, including club life, global commerce, and proto-capitalist investment. By presenting polite and apolitical personas, it is argued, gentlemen experimenters sterilized science of politics and made it more universally appealing. Deferential polish and methodological diligence shrouded spectacular findings in an aura of credibility, which led to commercial investments further legitimating scientific work. However, evidence from contemporary entertainments of the time suggests that science was overlaid in other contexts by religious dissent, theatricality, satire, and sexuality. The interactions between scientific print, often ephemeral and in broadside or pamphlet form, and theatrical and musical performances, often directed to subversive purposes, have not been systematically traced with respect to the dissemination of science.

Impolite Science treats practices long considered marginal to Enlightenment as central to its development. Scientific print crisscrossed the eighteenth-century Atlantic, but scientific performances brought these texts to life, capturing metropolitan and provincial imaginations. By examining printed and manuscript lecture notes, censored stage productions, (ir)rational recreations, and satires of natural philosophy, I argue that science gripped the popular imagination through indecorous cultural forms. Often dismissed as distractions from the science organizing around industry and trade during the period, these materials record competency acquisition for whole categories of British society currently marginalized in the historical record. They also reveal institutional science as one stridently parochial variant in a much larger field of competing scientific practices. As an emerging class of professionals valorized polite and apolitical science, amateurs all across the Atlantic communicated it with unlearned, uncouth, and salacious performances.

Print and Probability | Digital Humanities

damaged letters

Print and Probability develops novel machine learning and computer vision techniques to infer thousands of book and pamphlet printers whose identities have eluded scholars for roughly 500 years. Before the modern era, the book trade was often dangerous and secretive. For fear of persecution and punishment, printers between 1473-1800 declined to attach their names to about a quarter of all known books and pamphlets. However, now that over 130,000 books have been digitized by the Early English Books Online (EEBO) project, defects and variations in the printing tools of this era may hold the key to identifying these printers. Once an individual piece of metal type is damaged, it creates unique stamps. Since typesets belonged to specific printers, impressions of damaged type can thus serve as the fingerprints to identify the printers of tens of thousands of clandestine publications. The Print and Probability project works to automatically detect and track these unique pieces of damaged type in order to uncover new information about the history of books.

Buying into Science | Digital Humanities

network graph

Whole constellations of people, processes, and print made Enlightenment science possible, but characterizing these networks has so far been a challenge because such large-scale structures are less visible to serial readers. However, bibliographical and subscription data preserved in early modern print allow us to create statistical models that can retrace community contours with more granularity than is otherwise possible. Buying into Science is a network analysis project supported by a database of producers and consumers of scientific print from 1660-1800. Data was collected from subscription lists bound in scientific books, their front and back matter, modern resources such as the BBTI, the ESTC, and biobibliographies of British science. In addition to recovering who found value in which kinds of science and when, this project measures structural change in the scientific print trade over time with dynamic network analysis. Recovering functionaries of the scientific community—people who were historically less visible but structurally crucial—refines our understanding of large-scale transitions in scientific work.

Visualizing the Cosmos | Public Humanities

exhibit poster

This exhibit considered strategies shared by the arts, humanities and sciences for visualizing invisible things in order to better understand them. Reaching back to Galileo’s sunspot engravings from the early seventeenth century, and forward to the aesthetic choices of scientists rendering images from the Hubble Space Telescope, Visualizing the Cosmos showcased visualizations in print, pixel and paint by great minds of the last five hundred years. Six cases explored an equal number of themes. “Aesthetics as Data,” for example, considered the dramatic visualizations of Alexander von Humboldt and Frederic Edwin Church, who argued that tableaus of nature should “provoke our spirit” while “balancing appearance with exactitude.” Another case, on “Linear Narratives,” presented exemplary output resulting from the 18th-century surge in state-sponsored data collection. Striking bar charts and line graphs from William Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas (1786) were, for Laurence Sterne, striking for their tendency to smooth over the complexities of history.

WikiRhetoric | Technology Enhanced Learning

wiki slides

WikiRhetoric asked students to iteratively develop a repository of writing knowledge over the course of one semester of first-year composition (FYC). We know that students who reflect on their writing are better at articulating how new knowledge relates to prior knowledge. We also know that writers who are asked to derive principles from exercises—even when what they generate is faulty—will notice more and be more critical than writers who are not. The trouble with personal reflection is that it misses out on learning that emerges across shared experiences. WikiRhetoric asked what students might learn with access to each others’ writing knowledge and experiences. Students across sections and from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds collaboratively recorded how concepts and skills from FYC transferred to other contexts. The pilot of WikiRhetoric produced measurable returns in the quantity and quality of student learning. Pilot data revealed, additionally, that WikiRhetoric diversified the range of motivations that students brought to FYC, helping them develop a sense of urgency about course concepts and skills.

Edge2ID | DH Workflow

An edge-list conversion tool I built for the 2017 Folger EMDA workshop on network analysis.