Alice Dreger

Alice Dreger

Ph.D., Indiana University, Department of HPSC, 1995

We all earned degrees in History and Philosophy of Science, but I can name the specific moment when I knew I’d become an historian. I had walked in the Goodbody HPS mailroom to find three of my philosophically-inclined fellow grad students arguing about this: If you were instantaneously transported into space without a space suit, what would kill you? One said the cold. Another said suffocation. The third said the pressure differential between your body and space.

Me, I was reality-inclined. I tried arguing with them: “Under no circumstances would you be instantaneously transported into space without a spacesuit,” I protested. I might as well have been a ghost.

It is easy now to look back at graduate school and remember even these most miserable moments with fondness and gratitude. It’s kind of like giving birth, I suppose. Nature wipes out the unhelpful synapses. So, without meaning to discount whatever very real misery present-day graduate students in the department enjoy, I will remember here what made my graduate training great.

And as I remember what made my graduate training great, it is impossible not to do so by remembering the actions and words of specific mentors.

At the fiftieth anniversary reception, Fred Churchill appeared horrified when I recounted to him his comment on my hard-wrought first semester paper proposing a project on the history of hermaphroditism: “I see the start of a good idea here.” But as Tom Gieryn said to Fred, as he joined with us in this recent conversation, that’s exactly what you want your graduate mentor to do: be honest about how far you have to go. How many times have I benefitted from Fred insisting my good writing could be better? “German has nouns. English has verbs. Use them!” And so I do. And I get to write for Harvard University Press and the New York Times, thanks partly to Fred.

When Fred was tough, there was never any question in my mind he acted so to be supportive, to make my work as good as it could be. And this was true of many of the mentors I had in HPS. Ann Carmichael never failed to make me feel stupid in the most nurturing way. And she constantly let me know that she believed in me. “When you get your Guggenheim and are working at the University of Michigan or some such,” she said to me once.... And so I always thought I’d get a Guggenheim—that I had to.

Then there was the incredibly helpful infighting among the faculty over the Science Wars. At the time, trying to finish a dissertation while the senior and junior faculty fought over Externalism versus Internalism seemed to be what it must have been like to try to farm at Gettysburg the summer of 1863. But, in fact, the debates happened in an intellectually rigorous and humane way, and I came away not only with a rational sense of the power and the limits of science, but also with a sense of how to try to argue with class and humor.

Among the junior faculty, Stephen Kellert struck me as particularly saintly. I had cashed in my IRA’s from mortgage brokering to pay for my first year of graduate school. I didn’t realize I’d have to pay a penalty, and I suddenly found myself facing an IRS bill of $600 with no money in the bank. Stephen Kellert lent me that money, and insisted that I pay interest only in the form of a bag of candy and a promise to some day do the same for another graduate student. (I did so, when one of my own needed a loan between graduate school and the start of her first academic job.)

But it was not only the faculty who took care of me. It was also the older alumni for whom the faculty had earlier cared. I got into the program because of Jim Llana, who had earned his Ph.D. under Sam Westfall. When I went to Cambridge to work on my dissertation, Marsha Richmond kept me focused and free from an overwhelming sense of loneliness. At just the right time, John Beatty took another sabbatical, allowing me to take his position for a year, as my effective post-doc. And Jane Maienschein has sent me so many tiny, life-saving notes of support over the years, more than she would ever think to remember.

Most importantly in my work, I think, is what I learned from most of the crew of HPS about maintaining intellectual humility—keeping a strong sense of what one doesn’t know. I really lived, through HPS, that old adage about learning: When you get your bachelors degree, you think you know everything. When you get your masters, you realize you know nothing. And when you get your Ph.D., you realize no one knows anything. That’s the kind of realization that makes one not only ready for a life as a scholar, but also excited about life as a scholar.

Around the time I went to graduate school, my sister went into the convent. Years before, when I had expressed to her that I simply didn’t feel what she seemed to feel about God, she suggested to me that I pray my way into faith. That made no sense to me: how could you pray your way into faith?

And yet, years later, I feel like I have experienced something analogous. When I left HPS, I was qualified as an historian. But I never really felt like an historian. Yet now, after fifteen years of “praying” in archives, I feel the fervor of a vocation. I feel like I understand, in my gut, why history (and especially history of science) stands at the core of human life and human progress. And I feel grateful to HPS for having put me firmly on the path to that fervor.

As I was leaving for Bloomington for the reunion, the mate (whom I fell in love with there) asked me not to be one of those insufferable alum who complains about how everything isn’t exactly as it used to be. But it was hard not to complain to him, when I phoned home, that the service at the Runcible Spoon is now ridiculously attentive, and that Nick’s now smells only of old beer and not also of cigarette smoke. I miss the good old days. But I’m also glad I’m gone, and not just because parking has gotten harder. More because I’ve had a chance to really live beyond, to know more about what I don’t know. Thank you.