Ed Grant: My First Department Chair
Ed Grant’s last years teaching at IU-HPS were my first years as a graduate student in the program. He was department chair when I entered in 1989, so I first met him when I traveled to Bloomington to see if the place and the program would be a good fit for me. I was somewhat skeptical – back when the department was housed in Goodbody Hall, its space had a dark, traditional feel that extended beyond the communal Reading Room’s oak paneling. But Ed’s warmth and openness to my questions went a long way towards easing my fears.
I was among the last cohorts to take a graduate history of science survey of ancient and medieval science with Ed Grant, the professor who originated the class. All the graduate survey classes were, to put it mildly, a beast. But later I came to appreciate IU’s unique curricular approach: students of all interests and backgrounds were exposed not only to historiography of science, but also to a comprehensive ‘soup to nuts’ canon of ideas about the natural world and organized knowledge. Feminist science studies was in its heyday in the late 1980s and 1990s, so it was not long before I started exploring with that lens the many problems with that canon. Still, this undergraduate biology major was grateful for Ed’s patience and thoughtfulness when she eventually mustered the courage to ask the impossible question: “so…what exactly is Aristotelianism?” Critiques of ideas are always easier to understand and work with if you understand well the ideas themselves. Ed worked hard to frame both contemporary and medieval knowledge-making as a kind of ‘call and response’ conversation, and in so doing, he modeled the essential spirit of rigorous engaged scholarship.
Ed Grant represented a stabilizing presence in the department at a time when the faculty was ‘changing guards’ (from original members to the next generation). I took my written qualifying exams in Ed’s office and used that space to channel his thorough and amusing lecturing style to shape my own essays. In addition to his many books and articles, Ed also created an extremely popular undergraduate class on science and the occult, through which he encouraged Indiana students to think carefully and critically about interpreting ancient and medieval science and not fall into too simplistic presentism. He understood and grappled with what another grad school professor of mine (Tom Gieryn) called the boundary work of science.
From his retirement onward, Ed Grant visited the HPS department less frequently, but he was still a towering presence, especially at the weekly afternoon colloquia where visiting and in-house scholars gave talks about their research. Ed would typically come a few minutes early to socialize, and then sit close to the front of the seminar table, and listen closely – but sometimes, he would briefly nod off, especially if the speakers became repetitive or talked over their allotted time. When this happened, he would awaken at the audience’s final applause for the presentation – then his was often the first hand in the air to ask a question, the content of which revealed that he had been listening critically and carefully all along. I marveled at this skill, even more so when I learned later that it happened because Ed’s research production relied in part (as has mine) on a persistent insomnia: he unabashedly claimed the quiet of very early morning as his time of academic reflection, solitude, and writing.
I regret that I won’t get to talk to Ed again about other things that our scholarly lives eventually had in common – including a stint as an officer in the History of Science Society. But his collegiality, integrity, and abilities to listen and communicate clearly still strike me as essential qualities of a generous and effective leader -- they, and he, will be missed.