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, such as the periodical press and the theater, suggests 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, provincial, and colonial 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.

Buying into Science | Digital Humanities

network graph

Whole constellations of people, processes and print made Enlightenment science possible, but characterizing those networks has been a challenge because such large-scale structures are less visible to serial readers. Bibliographical and subscription data preserved in 18th-century print enable us to create statistical models that retrace community contours with more granularity than has so far been 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—historically less visible but structurally crucial—refines our understanding of large-scale transitions in the body of 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 and contingencies of history.

WikiRhetoric | Technology Enhanced Learning

wiki slides

WikiRhetoric uses a wiki to help students iteratively develop a repository of writing knowledge. Students across course sections and disciplines collaboratively record how concepts and skills from first-year composition (FYC) transfer to other disciplinary contexts. We know that, when reflecting, writers articulate how new knowledge relates to prior knowledge. Learners asked to formulate principles from activities, even when what they generate is faulty, notice more in new contexts and become more critical of their own knowledge. The trouble with personal reflection is that it misses out on the learning that emerges across shared experiences. WikiRhetoric asks what students can learn when they have access to each others’ understanding and the similarities and differences across their experiences. The pilot of WikiRhetoric produced measurable returns in students’ quantity and quality of learning. Pilot data reveals, 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.