Melinda Fagan

Melinda Fagan

Ph.D., Indiana University, Department of HPSC, 2007

First, I’d like to thank the organizers for the opportunity to return to IU on this occasion, and present my thoughts on HPS. I’d actually like to expand that acronym a little. My interdisciplinary experience here was very much about H, P & S – history, philosophy and sociology of science. So when I speak of HPS, I mean all three.

The ‘expanding acronym’ raises a concern: cumulative overload. If HPS requires double or triple expertise, professional-grade engagement with multiple fields, then hardly anyone will be able to do it, and professional advancement will be difficult for those who can. I don’t have a tidy solution for this, but I will try to speak to that concern, in a few minutes.

I’ll start autobiographically. To me, the differences between H, P & S of science have never seemed fundamental, because I studied science before any of them. I was a biology major, then a biology graduate student (working on molecular/cellular biology and comparative immunology), and eventually a post-doc in virology. But all the time I was studying biology and learning how to practice it professionally (~10 years), I never took any history, or philosophy, or sociology. (The one exception was PGS’s Philbio at Stanford, which was a class in evolutionary theory.) So when I decided to leave biology, I had no notion of the differences between H, P & S, and indeed only the vaguest idea of what they were about. My main interest as a novice biologist was in applying molecular and biochemical methods to answer questions about ecology and community structure. That’s an interfield project; my interest in linking different areas is quite a longstanding one.

I get asked a lot why I left biology. Usually, I say that it was because I wasn’t excited by the work, not doing what I wanted. But that’s not really accurate. What I was groping my way towards was a scholarly stance on biology that would allow me to reflect on its central concepts and organizing ideas. I knew from experience that laboratory work didn’t allow for that kind of distance, nor time to read and reflect. My activities as a biologist were in tension with what I really wanted to do.

And my naïve assumption was that H, P & S, lumped together, comprised the stance I wanted: somewhat removed, yet still engaged. I figured out, after about 10 years, that I love biology best from a distance. But I didn’t really have a sense of the new terrain, or its boundaries. So because of the way I came to HPS – I literally wandered to it – because of that path, the difference between science and studies of it was much more salient for me, than the differences among those studies. And IU was a good place – perhaps the only place – where I could study exactly those areas I had naively mapped out.

So one thing that made the HPS program particularly valuable, for me, was that it let me deepen my understanding of these areas with the sense that they are all accessible to one another – that choosing to emphasize one did not preclude engaging others, but might even facilitate it. There are a number of concrete features that contributed to this impression, particularly the required core seminars and courses jointly-taught by historians and philosophers.

But even more important, I think, was the attitude of faculty, and the diversity of ways they approach their scholarship. Instead of discrete blocs of history and philosophy, students are presented with a spectrum of ways the two can be combined. Some are quite near one end, to be sure – but the overall impression is of continuity. So, quite apart from the subject matter I learned as a student here, it was enormously valuable for me to see this range of examples of how to do HPS, to find the balance that best suited me.

And the feeling that ‘doors are open’ between fields encouraged me to go outside Goodbody Hall, and explore connections with the philosophy and sociology departments. My dissertation was very much a product of circulating between Goodbody, Ballantyne, and Sycamore Halls, chasing a common thread. So the most important benefit of being at IU, for me, was the sense that academic boundaries are porous, and productive discussions can cross the boundaries of between fields and disciplines. This gave me a much richer scholarly background than training in any one field would have done.

The initial, naïve sense that I had, wandering in from biology, that HP&S are all partners in studying science, matured here at IU. I think that if I had met with a different kind of atmosphere, one in which the boundaries are fixed, and students expected to find their place within them, I would have left, just I as did biology. And I’m glad I stayed! My current position is at a university (Rice) that is committed to connections between science and humanities. The HPS program at IU let me find what I was looking for, and I don’t know of another pathway that would have done that.

The flipside to this benefit is, of course, a concern. Although IU was unquestionably the right place for me, the kind of scholarship I learned to practice here orients me toward the periphery of the discipline in which I now find myself (philosophy). I’m not drawn to what are seen as the central questions of analytic philosophy, or philosophy of science or even philosophy of biology. H, P & S meet most often, it seems, at the marginal edges of established disciplines. And this can feel like a very precarious location. Interdisciplinary studies are sometimes seen as ‘boutique’ areas of scholarship – a pleasant luxury when one can afford it, but not vital, not really necessary in academia or in teaching. In lean economic times, that perception is of great concern.

However, the trend in the sciences – at least, the sciences I know best, those associated with molecular/cellular work and biomedical applications – is increasingly toward interdisciplinary collaborations, and forming links across fields. There are a lot of initiatives at Rice (my home institution now) that cross departments and campuses, and scientists have been reaching out as well as humanists, in the other direction.

I’ll conclude my prepared discussion with the suggestion that are prospects for integrated HPS in this trend. One avenue involves teaching science. It seems obvious that students with experience in HPS will make better scientists – they’ll have a sense of the background of the field, its broader context, the rationale behind the methods and facts they learn, and the potential social significance of their work. This is an issue I didn’t think about much while at IU. But, teaching philosophy of science at Rice, I’ve been struck by how classes in Sociology, Anthropology and History complement my syllabi, and my colleagues and I are looking for ways to make them synergize. Integrated HPS is the rubric we want, really.

The HPS program is a graduate program; I’m not suggesting that adding an undergraduate major is the answer. But I do think integrated HPS should connect with undergraduate teaching, and should aim to be part of science training. Treating H, P & S as special advanced topics within a particular discipline obscures the broader relevance that they can have, all together, as part of a basic, vital understanding of science.